The power of symbols is not lost on me, and I often find myself divided between two camps. On the one hand, symbols can carry a tremendous amount of weight and history. On the other, symbols can be repurposed and reclaimed to support anything.
The most obvious historical example is the swastika, which originally was a sign of luck across various cultures that became a symbol of oppression and hatred. Unfortunately, negative connotations often carry more weight than positives, easily rendering the positive meaning impotent. Now, the swastika is avoided in Western culture because of its connection to the Holocaust.
In the United States, the Confederate Battle Flag is a prevalent symbol south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and is used to rally southern pride. Developed during the American Civil War as a distinctive symbol (since the Confederate States of America’s official flag was confusingly similar to that of the United States), each star signified a member state in the new nation, and was indicative of the unified drive for states’ rights that sparked the rebellion. It has two visually similar cousins, the Second Confederate Navy Jack and the battle flag of the Army of Tennessee.
As it signified “states’ rights,” I supported the South’s continued use of the flag, even with the understanding that the Civil War was also partly driven by the topic of slavery. I had no concrete proof that slavery was the prime reason for the tensions, but was instead a secondary concern. Even in 1860, a year or so before the Civil War began, slavery was treated as a states’ rights issue; Southern Democrats endorsed the practice, Republicans denounced it, and Northern Democrats said democracy required the people to decide locally, state by state, territory by territory.
It should go without saying that I do not personally support slavery, but to understand the motivations of the time, I also need to consider the era. It wasn’t necessarily a moral issue, but rather a political one.
Then I found the Cornerstone Address.
The Constitution of the Confederate States of America was adopted on March 11, 1861. Ten days later, Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the new nation, delivered a speech in Athens, Georgia that outlined the fundamental differences between the CSA and the USA. Among those differences was what he called the “immediate cause” of secession and rebellion: Slavery.
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Deeper into the address, Stephens elaborates on this fundamental difference, lamenting that the United States was “attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.”
After applying the lens of modern society to this revelation, I had no choice but to step back from my support of the states’ rights argument: It’s plain as day that the core point of contention between the Blue and the Gray wasn’t state autonomy at all, but instead a policy of oppression and subjugation that we deplore in modern times. In fact, this nation fights against such policies and regimes in foreign countries all the time. Why is it any different when the conflict is here at home?
Historians often ignore this speech, and detractors suggest that it was only one speech by one man over a century ago, so it shouldn’t matter. The problem lies in the man who delivered the address. The Office of the Vice President was nearly identical between both the United States and the Confederate States, and therefore held the same authority when speaking with the power of the position. Consider if any sitting Vice President in the modern era made a similar speech about using executive or legislative policy to enable subjugation of a race. He or she would be castigated, repudiated, and likely forced to immediately resign.
The articles of secession provide further evidence: Four of the states issued additional declarations of cause that strongly defended slavery as a reason to secede. Those four states – Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and South Carolina – were among the first seven to leave the Union. Texas and two other states – Alabama and Virginia, the fourth and eighth states to secede, respectively – mentioned slavery in their secession acts. Of the six states with slavery as a declared priority, five of them were among the seven state signatories to the Confederate Constitution. That’s a clear majority of the founders of the Confederacy.
It’s clear with respect to history that the Confederacy stood for racism to achieve states’ rights, and the ends cannot justify the means.
I certainly don’t suggest that anyone who uses the symbols of the Confederacy is a racist or supports slavery, but I do believe that the motivations of the past should be considered when voicing support. Boldly proclaiming that “the South shall rise again” takes on a whole new tone when the true aims of the defeated Confederate States are added to the mix.
I believe citizens and governments should honestly deliberate over state-sponsored use of Confederate symbols. These symbols have power and history, and as mentioned before, the negatives tend to outweigh the positives. States speak for their citizens, and should not wave the sins of the past over the families of the oppressed.
I don’t support a full ban of the symbols, as bans create an allure of mystery and taboo. We as a people need to learn from our history and mistakes, and never forget the past. To that end, I believe that the southern states should seriously consider removing the Stars and Bars from flagpoles, and to paraphrase Indiana Jones, place them where they belong – in a museum.