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The Confederate battleflag comes in waves, with a history that is still unfurling

People protest the Confederate battle flag. EPA/Michael Nelson

The Confederate battleflag comes in waves, with a history that is still unfurling

People protest the Confederate battle flag. EPA/Michael Nelson

This is a long-read essay. Enjoy!

At the funeral of Clementa Pinkney last week, Barack Obama gave the Confederate battleflag what many assume is its final – if delayed – death sentence in public life, saying he believed it belongs in a museum.

But the battleflag‘s backstory is far more complex and contested than either Obama’s resolve or the substantially unified voices of the press may suggest. The president’s condemnation mirrors the current and rapidly-changing public mood – but attitudes to the flag have deeper roots.

The first life of the battleflag

Obama consciously linked into an ongoing and live history of African-American public agitation against the Confederate battleflag, over seven decades.

Existing African-American understanding of the flag as an inevitably racialised symbol became a self-fulfilling prophecy in the wake of the Brown v Board of Education judgment in 1954 when it was consciously adopted as the symbol of opposition to desegregation and the civil rights movement.

But the choice of the battleflag as a rallying point may also have been due to its popularity way beyond the former Confederate states in the 1950s. The flag had begun to appear in a range of contexts – from its use by sporting fans to use in electoral campaigns.

After Charleston, does the Confederate battleflag belong in a museum? edward stojakovic/Flickr

The backstory that led to the flag becoming a highly contested symbol in the 1950s and 1960s is not what you may expect.

Although named popularly the Confederate Flag, it never was an official flag of the Confederate regime, even though that regime changed its flag design three times in four years, designs that today are hardly known to the general public.

Nor is the flag the right format for military usage. Designed after the Battle of Bull Run in 1861 to stop confusion between the Confederate government flag and the United States flag, regulations prescribed a square in different sizes for different branches of service. The design was the familiar blue and red St Andrews cross.

Rectangular flags, which had isolated use in the armies west of the Mississippi and in the Confederate navy, became more common after the war. Industrial flag makers chose to standardise production of Confederate motif flags with their other products and created a relic that was rarely part of the wartime experience.

Actual Confederate government flags have not attracted the extremes of language generated by the battleflag – despite officially signifying a regime that enshrined chattel slavery. They apparently do not cause what law students of Washington and Lee University called “psychological shackles” in their successful petition in 2014 to remove the battleflags decorating Robert E Lee’s tomb.

The rise of the battleflag

Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington DC in 1928. Wikimedia Commons

The battleflag remained relatively invisible until the 1940s. Its usage was contained by veterans and organisations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy to memorial occasions and ceremonies honouring living soldiers.

Closely connected to issues of mourning of family members and former comrades, it surprisingly infrequently leached out into explicitly racist/ racial contexts. Conversely there are myriad images from the interwar heydays of the Ku Klux Klan using the stars and stripes to evoke the imagery of totalitarian regimes – including the famous images of a massed rally in Washington DC in 1925.

In the post-second-world-war boomtime the flag became a popular cultural fad. It was an image on regional tourist souvenirs in an era when recreational travel by air or by car became affordable as never before. The flag became central to new forms of consumption and desire that had little relation to the history of the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Confederate flag merchandise is still common. Elizabeth Prata/Flickr

It was during this era that the plethora of Confederate battleflag-themed garmentry, including swimwear and underwear, began to appear. Those items still find willing buyers.

There was an upswing of an unofficial, spontaneous visibility of the battleflag among the US military in the second world war which escalated further into the Korean War. The flag became associated broadly with the distant homeland north and south, and also with a certain good-humoured, rough and ready resilience of a type that Australians were beginning to brand as “larrikinesque” in the same era.

The battleflag after Vietnam

Deployment of the battleflag by individual military personnel continued in the Vietnam War (even though African-American soldiers often protested against the use of Confederate symbols and rituals and army officials tried to limit these unofficial displays of the battleflag as they caused tensions and divisions in racially-mixed facilities).

The association of the battleflag with working-class masculinity, sports fans, car racing, elaborate customised vehicles, professional truck drivers and country and western music began around the 1950s/ 1960s, as the enthusiasm for the battleflag moved from military to civilian life.

Confederate heritage groups were concerned about what they saw as “insults” to the flag due to working-class appropriations. The Dukes of Hazzard television show, dedicated to the antics of the Duke family in Georgia, visibly consolidated such ideas.

The iconic Dukes of Hazzard Dodge. EPA/Julien's Auction

The Confederate flag in Europe

Transcultural uses of the battleflag in Europe and England for several decades have shown little engagement with American racial politics.

While some academics target European football hooligans and anti-immigrant protesters for using the battleflag to make de facto racist comments, European sporting fans often use the battleflag to highlight intra-national rivalries. It’s quite a different usage to that in the United States.

For example, the flag speaks to consciousness of north/ south divides that have been live in both Irish and Italian histories. Sicily has deployed the battleflag to romanticise a sense of victimisation by what is regarded as the dominant and discriminatory north and to suggest a resistance at a vernacular level.

On the other hand I have seen, during January 2014, in a densely populated immigrant district of Paris around the Gare de l’Est, a French-African shop owner both retailing and himself modelling striking confederate flag-themed trousers. This directly cuts across North American definitions of the flag as an a priori Afrophobic symbol.

Civil war re-enactments are popular all over the world. Darryl Moran/Flickr

The appearance of the battleflag in Europe also highlights the continuing widespread interest there in Civil War re-enacting. It also reflects a European interest in “wild west” re-enacting that includes a racial mimicry of Native Americans by Caucasians that would be unacceptable in the United States.

Scandinavia has adopted the Confederate battleflag in the Raggare subculture, based upon retro North-American cultural imagery of the 1950s and restoring classic cars. Here the battleflag retains a highly positive image, similarly to the rockabilly subculture.

The few press articles to appear after the Charleston shootings that have defended the battleflag as something that can have multiple meanings, other than festering racial intolerance, or suggesting that the battleflag can evoke the rich presence of the American South in the popular cultural imagination, come from British dailies – again suggesting that the battleflag has different meanings outside the United States.

Flying the flag in Australia

The battleflag certainly surfaced within the mid-20th century obsession with North-American history in Australia. Tourist attractions around Lakes Entrance in rural Victoria included a Gone With the Wind/ Confederate-themed museum that seems not to have survived into the digital age. The Grey Ghost (1957-8) was a Confederate-themed television series that screened in Australia.

Disney offered Johnny Shiloh (1963), a family-themed TV narrative about a Union drummer boy whose annoying mannerisms as directed on screen probably won many hearts and minds for the Confederacy.

With the guide of the maps and diagrams in the Golden Book of the Civil War (1961), the conflict offered something more complex and tangible than “Cowboys and Indians” for scripting play scenarios.

While Confederate re-enactors have loyally unfurled the (mostly typically rectangular) battleflag in Australia since the 1960s, sword-play tournaments, medieval/ early modern re-enacting and fantasy cosplay with medieval styling have now far outpaced American Civil War re-enacting in attracting Australian “living history” enthusiasts today.

Although the battleflag is still often displayed in “smoking paraphernalia” shops alongside Rastafarian imagery, ANC colours and the new South African flag, a context that would be inexplicable to both African American and white parties to current American debates.

Truck drivers and motorcyclists, including the Rebels gang, openly show or wear the battleflag in Australia, as in the United States

Redefining the flag

The rapid redefining of Confederate imagery as unacceptable has had strange flow on effects in popular culture, given the particular high profile of the American Civil War in the global public imagination.

In the wake of the Charleston shootings, digital games with Civil War and battleflag content have been pulled from the Apple App store.

EBay, Amazon, Walmart and many other retailers have stopped stocking Confederate-themed products. Gift shops at the visitors centres at National Park Service battlefield sites including Gettysburg and Antietam have removed Confederate-themed souvenirs.

Last week a video of an ISIS flag cake made to order at Walmart for a disgruntled Confederate sympathiser who wanted to show up the hypocrisy of banning battleflag cakes when ISIS cakes were freely traded went viral. The episode has led to a ban on ISIS cakes.

The Isis cake video that went viral.

For all the companies that have ceased trading in or making Confederate-themed items, other companies are reporting extraordinary upswings of business – thousands of battleflags are being sold. Official prohibitions, and personal lobbying by concerned groups and individuals to remove flags, are being counterbalanced by widespread public disobedience through display of the battleflag.

Flags have been removed – but private ownership of flags means that there has been little if any change in the numerical frequency of flag displays, although the nature of the sites have changed from symbolically charged sites of legal and political governance to private property and possessions.

The nature of these contestations is by no means new to anyone who has followed the very volatile presence of the American Civil War in popular culture.

There is a chasm between the desire to erase what is perceived as racist imagery and the desire to celebrate “Confederate heritage”.

The accurately-shaped square battleflag on the Confederate memorial outside the South Carolina Congress building was a compromise, made in 2000, when the flag was removed from the Congress Dome, when the resolution fell more favourably towards Confederate sympathisers.

These contests have often filtered down to a highly personal level, such as school girl Texanna Edwards‘ 2012 battle with Gibson County High School to wear a Confederate flag-themed ballgown to the school dance, or the complaints about a life-sized cardboard cutout of African American drag queen Ru Paul at the Museum of the Confederacy, again featuring a battleflag themed evening dress.

High schools have long taken a particularly uncompromising attitude towards confederate imagery worn on school premises as part of a conscious effort to uphold the historical commitment to integration. Students have complained about class peers being allowed to wear garments with Malcolm X and African themes, when battleflag motifs are banned.

These incidents still occur relatively frequently and often in schools outside the former Confederacy. Gettysburg’s Lutheran Theological Seminary, for example, has caused particular anxiety within the online community by recently preventing any “symbols of hate speech and racism” being displayed during re-enactments on its grounds. There is now a boycott page for the Seminary’s renowned Civil War Museum on Facebook. This ban cuts deeply among re-enactors because the cupola on the still-standing Schmucker Hall administration block at the college was an actual military observation point, from where General Buford oversaw troop movements.

Dukes of Hazzard toy cars have been withdrawn from production due to the battleflag imagery. Actor Ben Jones criticised this decision in an online essay:

I think all of Hazzard Nation understands that the Confederate battle flag is the symbol that represents the indomitable spirit of independence which keeps us makin’ our way the only way we know how.

This week pay TV stations in North America have dropped the Dukes of Hazzard re-runs in mid series.

The future of the flag

Dylann Roof’s terrorist act in Charleston has triggered an unprecedented pace and proliferation in these familiar disputes. For the time being he has ensured that public consensus favours the prohibition of the battleflag.

There has been a slow but steady removal of battleflags and open celebrations of the Confederacy over the last 20 years. Though African Americans have long defined the battleflag as offensive, it has taken six, nearly seven decades, for a broad consensus of white public opinion to accept their definition.

This judgement has acquired an urgent plausibility in the wake of the Mother Emmanuel shootings – but it is more contested and unexpected than internet activism may assume.

Before the Charleston shootings the most recent link of highly-publicised gun crime to the battleflag was the 1995 death of the white 19-year-old Michael Westerman in Kentucky, accidentally shot during a high-speed car chase by an African American youth who objected to the battleflag that Westerman flew off his red pickup truck.

That case attracted widespread press attention, and triggered widespread debate, especially for the complex details of working-class rural life, where mutual poverty created a hitherto somewhat less polarised daily interaction between racial groups than in larger cities. One of Westerman’s pursuers was actually a personal friend who did not recognise him until too late due to the tinted windows of his truck. Westermans was buried with quasi military honours under the battleflag.

In one of the most thoughtful of all articles written on the future of public memory and the battleflag in the wake of the Charleston shootings, Professor Glenda Gilmore of Yale University suggested last week that the shooting is actually not a Civil war or Civil Rights story.

Gilmore argued that conservative politicians were responding to changing demographics in the south and no longer needed to retain or buy the loyalty of the white working class to ensure re-election. By now consistently supporting the removal of Confederate imagery from public view, wrote Gilmore, “leaders of the Newest South hope to make their values more palatable for national consumption and export them to a global stage in 2016”.

This pragmatism brings this debate closer to Australia in an abstract rather than a literal manner. Political parties have made a similar shift from supporting lower-income earners.

Working-class anxieties about employment, demographic change and global population movements are secondary to the neoliberal advantage of having an always-insecure workforce competing for often transient jobs.

Another clear instance of pragmatism disguised as human rights is when the University of Mississippi changed the mascots and insiginia of its (gridiron) football team when the former Confederate soldier and flag imagery made it increasingly hard to attract high-level atheletes in the 1980s and 1990s.

Reading Dylann Roof only in terms of the battleflag, the disappearance of which from official and public space he has substantially facilitated, is restricted. With his history of social isolation, drifting without education and jobs, and finally radicalisation via the internet, there are significant parallels to the global phenomenon of many and varied disaffected young men – including Islamicists, Islamophobes, Anti-Semites, Anders Brevik and anti-feminist shooter Marc Lepine – who kill to cleanse society of those they see as undesirable/ inferior.

The battleflag could thus also be an expression of, rather than the causal agent of, a problem that stretches far beyond its regional history.