White supremacy's gross symbol: What the "the stars and bars" really represent -- and why

It didn't take long before the Confederate flag became a symbol of racism, expert James McPherson tells Salon

Published March 27, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

                      (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-894418p1.html'>PhotosbyAndy</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(PhotosbyAndy via Shutterstock)

As my colleague Paul Campos noted earlier this week, the Supreme Court will hand down a ruling later this year on whether a state can stop its citizens from purchasing specialty license plates featuring the Confederate flag. The case is a complex and interesting one that raises all sorts of questions about free speech. But while the court has been grappling with the limits and mandates of the First Amendment, the outside world has been engaged in a different, less esoteric discussion.

It's one that's popped up time and again throughout American history, and will undoubtedly continue to rears its head — at least so long as "Sweet Home Alabama" is a staple of classic rock radio. What, really, is the meaning of the Confederate flag? Is it simply a sign of Southern heritage, as former Rep. Ben Jones argued recently? Or is it a symbol of "treason in the defense of slavery," as Campos writes?

Seeking answers, Salon recently spoke over the phone with James McPherson, the celebrated historian of American history and author of the classic "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era" and this year's "The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters." We discussed the creation of the flag, the way its meaning changed throughout U.S. history, and how Confederate leaders might feel about its continued prevalence today. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length and can be found below.

Most schoolchildren are taught the story (or myth) of Betsy Ross and the creation of the U.S. flag. Is there a story behind the Confederate flag, too?

Well, we know who designed the Confederate battle flag, which is the one you're talking about; the St. Andrew's Cross, red background and blue cross with the white stars on it. That's actually not the Confederate national flag, although it appeared as part of the third and fourth Confederate national flags.

The original Confederate national flag had three broad bars, a red bar, a white bar and red bar, and then the blue field with initially seven stars on it to represent the first seven confederate states that seceded. And then when four more went out after the firing on Fort Sumter, there were 11 stars on it, and eventually 13 because both Kentucky and Missouri had "rump" confederate governments and were admitted to the Confederate Congress.

So why did they create a separate battle flag?

At the first battle of Bull Run or Manassas that Confederate national flag, which is the one that gets called the "Stars and Bars," on a calm day with no wind to stretch it out, looked very much like the American flag. The American flag, of course, had 13 red and white strips and a blue field with stars in it. The Confederate flag had three bars, red, white, red and a blue field with stars on it. So Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard decided that he needed to design a different national flag so that it would be distinguished from the American flag. There was so much confusion about which flag was which at the first battle of Bull Run.

So he came up with a design for the Confederate battle flag, the red background and the blue St. Andrew's cross with the stars in it. That's documented. There's no mythology about the creation of the Confederate battle flag. Subsequently the Confederate national flag was changed into first a white background with a blue and red field in the upper left hand corner, with the stars on it. It went through a couple more evolutions, but the flag that has come down to us as the Confederate flag is really the battle flag, and it was carried as the battle flag in the Army of Northern Virginia but not necessarily in the other Confederate armies. There were a variety of battle flags in other Confederate armies.

Did the Stars and Bars' transformation from being the flag for the Army of Northern Virginia to a symbol intended to represent the entire Confederacy happen quickly, once Reconstruction ended? Or was it a gradual process from then to now?

It gradually took on a representative quality. I would say by the 1890s, maybe even in the 1880s, when Confederate monuments started going up ... that battle flag took on this representative character. I think ever since the 1890s it has represented the Confederacy.

And did people back then see it as representing something apart from slavery, as the flag's defenders do today? Or were they more comfortable asserting that it was a symbol of white supremacy?

Initially, it was associated with Confederate heritage. But it's come to be associated in the last 60 or 70 years as much with white supremacy and resistance to the civil rights movement.

In the 1940s ... that Confederate flag came to represent white supremacy as a form of defense against the beginnings of the civil rights movement. It became the symbol of the Dixiecrat Party in 1948 — which, as you know, seceded from the Democratic Party because of the civil rights plank that Hubert Humphrey got inserted in the Democratic Party's platform in 1948. I think ever since then it's become a symbol of white supremacy.

In the minds of many it continues to be associated with Confederate heritage — but as Confederate heritage itself has become increasingly associated with slavery (which was the essential reason for the Confederacy in the first place) the Confederate flag is now symbolic of both slavery and white supremacy and of the relationship between the two of them.

Would Jefferson Davis be surprised by the symbolic power the flag's come to hold? I would imagine that, at the time, he had bigger things on his mind.

I don't think Jefferson Davis would have been surprised. I think some other prominent Confederates, maybe Robert E. Lee, would be surprised by the important symbolism it's taken on.

Davis himself was unreconstructed, never took the oath of allegiance to the United States. He said he didn't want a pardon because he hadn't done anything wrong. He continued to be a spokesman for the Confederacy having been right even though [it was] defeated. To the extent that the Confederate flag has not become a symbol for much of what the Confederacy stood for, I don't think he would be surprised and I don't think he would be concerned about it.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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