On the morning of July 10, the Confederate battle flag was removed from the grounds of the State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina. Given the vitriolic history of the flag debate in South Carolina and much of the South, this outcome is truly shocking.
Even more shocking is that several white elected officials came out strongly in favor of taking the battle flag down. In past years, this would have greatly decreased their odds of winning any future election.
Political jurisdictions develop sets of political iconography, or symbols, that are commonly understood by their populations. Americans, for example, generally have a common understanding of the US national flag and eagle. These symbols can serve as part of the “glue” that holds nations together. At other times, these symbols can divide people – the Confederate battle flag is a case in point.
For the past couple of decades, I’ve studied political iconography with an emphasis on Southern politics and Confederate symbols. Because of my focus, I never thought I would see the lowering of the flag from South Carolina’s state grounds. But it happened, so here’s my explanation.
How the flag was raised
The Confederate flag was first raised over the South Carolina Capitol dome in the early 1960s for the Civil War Centenary.
There is also evidence, however, that there was a secondary motivation for raising the battle flag – defiance of the federal courts over the issue of desegregation.
Similar trends were at work in neighboring states. In addition to South Carolina, Georgia altered its flag in the late 1950s to include elements of the Confederate battle flag, and Alabama put up the battle flag in 1963 as George Wallace was to meet with Attorney General Robert Kennedy about the desegregation of the University of Alabama.
The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision declaring segregation in schools unconstitutional clearly played a role: the flag was a central symbol of the massive resistance movement launched to oppose integration.
Things began to shift in the early 1990s as southern states vied to attract foreign direct investment.
South Carolina was a finalist for a Mercedes plant that ended up just north of Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1993. By this point, Alabama, interestingly, had taken the flag down from the State Capitol dome but South Carolina had not. Indeed, it has been suggested that the Confederate flag played a role in the company’s decision to select Alabama over South Carolina.
In South Carolina itself, there was also some change, with the flag being moved in 2000 from atop the Capitol dome and placed at ground level at the Confederate memorial on the Capitol’s grounds.
This compromise, however, did not satisfy all parties, and in the intervening years, efforts continued to have the flag entirely removed from the Capitol.
Attitudes toward the battle flag divide Southerners along a racial fault line.
A recent CNN poll found that 75% of Southern whites see the battle flag as a symbol of pride, while 75% of Southern blacks see it as a symbol of racism.
These proportions are not unlike those from 15 years ago: the defense of the battle flag by some traditional Southern whites continues to be as fervent as it was in past decades. In the wake of the battle flag being lowered in Columbia, its visibility will be higher (at least in the short term) across the South. And there will be, no doubt, more demonstrations by neo-Confederate racist groups like League of the South that promote the secession of the region from the United States.
Race, however, is not the only factor affecting the flag debates.
The role of religion
Many in the South in the 1860s viewed the Civil War as a religious struggle against northern apostasy. As a result, Confederate symbols took on religious significance.
For example, the second national flag of the Confederacy, the “Stainless Banner,” was white with a canton that incorporated the battle emblem.
The white portion of the flag was viewed as emblematic of the racial and religious purity of the Confederate cause.
The Confederate battle flag was never the national flag of the Confederacy, but it also has religious significance.
Though most viewers see only an X, the design of the flag actually incorporates St Andrew’s Cross, a cross on which St. Andrew, an apostle of Jesus and brother of Paul, was supposedly crucified.
Reconsidering the flag
Given their historically hardened positions, why have many pro-flag supporters reconsidered?
While there are several possible contributing factors, a central candidate is religion.
Southerners, both black and white, are much more intensely religious than Americans in other parts of the country. A recent Gallup poll, for example, found weekly church attendance highest in the South. For example, with the exception of Utah, all states with the highest rates of weekly church attendance were either in the South or border states such as Kentucky or Oklahoma.
Unlike the racial flag divide, in other words, intense religiosity is shared by both black and white Southerners.
The massacre of nine African Americans at a Bible study gathering by a young racist white man enamored with the Confederate battle flag had a symbolism that nearly all Southerners immediately understood with horror.
Those in the South Carolina state legislature who ardently defended the battle flag in the past on the grounds of “legacy” and “pride” likely did not change their opinion, but the horror of the Charleston murders was such that it was felt deeply by both Southern whites and blacks – making moot racial divides on other issues due to their shared faith.
As someone who has actively researched and published a dozen or more articles on this issue since the early 1990s, I truly believed I would never see this happen.
Pigs, in other words, really can fly.
The Confederate battle flag represents all that divides black and white Southerners – but religious fervor is at the opposite end of that continuum.
If the murders in Charleston had not happened on sacred ground in a church, it is doubtful that political leaders would have had a path to remove the battle flag from the South Carolina Capitol.
The question now is how voters will react in next year’s elections in South Carolina. Legislators voting to take down the flag down representing rural and dominantly white constituencies may find their paths to reelection highly contentious.