My Thoughts on the Rebel Flag
In The Beginning
In the Civil War (war of Northern Aggression to my fellow Southerners), the Rebel Flag was just one of many battle flags used by the Confederate States during the war. Interestingly, it is not an official flag of the Confederate government. This flag, and some variations of it, were used by many units as battle flags. During the war era, the Rebel Flag was most notable for being the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s army unit, Northern Virginia. However, the flag was not the centerpiece of the Civil War, the Confederate States, or Southern Culture. This flag was seen post-war mainly at events to commemorate fallen Confederate soldiers. So, how did it gain it’s fame and power? More on that fame later. One common trait that transcends from the war until now is the flag’s symbolic power.
From Cloth to Power
How does a piece of cloth used in a losing battle gain power? First, we have to understand the power of symbols. Generically, symbols are part of language, a way to express. Thus the term, a picture is worth a thousand words. We use symbols in our everyday life as functional language. These symbols tell us where to wait for a bus, catch a subway train, where to find food, when to swim and not to swim, where to find an airport or hospital, when to stop and when to go.
Some symbols go beyond tools of functional language. These symbols transform abstract concepts, ideas and beliefs into tangible things that we can touch, see, hear, taste, smell and understand. They become a universal language in a culture. Cultural symbols remind it’s members of the culture’s history, rules, power, unity, and beliefs. These symbols get their power from the culture they represent. The power of culture is to give us belonging, meaning, significance, permanence and legacy. In short, it gives us identity.
Power to Represent
So, how did the Rebel Flag become the symbol of Southern Culture? As stated earlier, it was flown by the most recognized Confederate soldier, Robert E. Lee. While not prominent in other parts of the country, it became synonymous with sacrifice, loyalty, and unity in the South to honor fallen soldiers. The Rebel Flag was brought out of retirement for military symbolism in World War II as southern regiments flew the flag over their quarters and battlefields. This brought the flag international recognition thus reinforcing its power to those it represents.
As with many other cultural symbols, the Rebel Flag became a victim of misuse by subcultures. In the 1940’s, those opposed to proposed civil rights adopted (I would suggest hijacked) the Rebel Flag as a symbol of protest. In particular, the “Dixiecrats”, a common name for the States’ Rights Party, flew the Rebel Flag at their 1948 convention in Birmingham. This “hijacking” has repeated itself numerous times since 1948 by groups that would otherwise denounce each other. These groups include organizations from the KKK to the state of Georgia. Essentially, the Rebel Flag has “morphed” from a military unit’s battle flag to a memorial symbol to a symbol of hate.
Does the flag now only represent an attempt to prove racial superiority? Some say yes, because that is what they hear, but it is not that simple. While there have been deflections and “dual citizenship” into the subculture of hate, many Southerners still see the noble aspects that the Rebel Flag “speaks”. Their voices of quiet reverence have been silenced by the hijackers’ vociferous voices of hate. Along with it, the symbolism of independence, loyalty, honor, and sacrifice has been replaced with fear, hate, and political power.
False Battles and the Real Enemy of the Flag
So where does the Rebel Flag belong in our society today? To answer that, ask yourself: “Who do you want the flag to represent?”. Those currently holding the flag are erasing all good aspects of the Southern culture and replacing it with a legacy of racism. We must retake the flag and place it in its proper post-war context of honored sacrifice.
How do we do this? Rather than removing the flag, we need to remove the voices of hate. Rather than just defending the flag, that now is more representative of the subculture than the culture, we should strongly denounce those that use it as a symbol of hate. We cannot maintain a blasé attitude that is translated as condonation rather that condemnation. Our “heritage” has been rewritten to emphasize the very aspect in which divides our county. Ironically, it is the aspect in which we hold the most similar beliefs as the flag’s opposition. Both sides unitedly denounce slavery. That is the common ground on which we should stand. We do not need to grab the Rebel Flag only to be drawn into a false battle over the existence of racism. Our battle is with those that stole our flag.
Should the flag be flown only in museums? Is it forever disgraced? Does is stand for something other than slavery? Share your thoughts and be heard.