After years of inexplicable tolerance, the Confederate flag — or what’s come to be accepted as the Confederate flag — is having perhaps its worst week since April 1865. Politicians, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, have decried the flag, which still flies near the South Carolina capitol, even after the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Some of the country’s most prominent retailers have announced that they’ll stop carrying not simply the banner itself, but any merchandise that bears the insignia. A number of states are trying to stop issuing license plates with Confederate flag imagery.
But just as the hard work of building real racial equality can’t end with the banishment of a cultural symbol, if we want a more nuanced understanding of the South’s history, culture and legacy, we’ll have to fill the void left if the Confederate flag vanishes from government sites. It’s not just that flying the Army of Northern Virginia’s battle flag and insisting that it’s a neutral symbol of the memory of the Confederate dead obscures the commitment of Confederate leaders to maintaining slavery. It’s that using the standard that’s come to be known as the Confederate flag as a stand-in for Southern heritage as a whole reduces that region’s long history to treason in defense of poisonous racism. The Southern states are far more than that. And anyone who really wants to celebrate Southern culture and Southern contributions to American history has far more honorable, comprehensive options available to them.
1. The Saint George Cross flag: It might be somewhat odd for me to recommend the flag of another country, and I’m aware that the religious symbolism won’t be for everyone. But the British Red Ensign flew at the Jamestown Colony in Virginia. This history of the American continent doesn’t begin in Virginia. But the events that would lead to the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States as a separate country do. And the Saint George Cross flew on the Susan Constant, one of the three ships that brought settlers to Jamestown. If you want an emblem that connects American history to both its Southern and British roots, this may be the standard for you.
2. The Yorktown Bauman flag: Taken from a map drawn by Maj. Sebastian Bauman that captured the landscape after the British surrender at Yorktown, this flag has white stripes at the edges, a narrower blue field and 13 stars. Bauman was an immigrant who fought in multiple campaigns for his adopted country. If British settlement of North America began in Virginia, this standard is a nice testament to the fact that British control of the region also ended there.
3. The Fort Moultrie flag: Of all of the flags on this list, this Revolutionary War crescent moon on a blue field emblazoned with the word “Liberty” is probably the most beautiful, and it inspires the contemporary design of the South Carolina state flag. Fort Moultrie came under attack by the British in 1776, before construction on it was even finished. It would be part of the defense of Charleston harbor during the Civil War as well. But this standard is a nice reminder that this series of forts has a history that precedes secession.
4. The Gadsden flag: If you want a banner that represents Southern contributions to the United States as a whole, why not go with this flag, which Col. Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina presented at the Second Continental Congress and which became the standard that Commodore Esek Hopkins flew on his flagship in his command of the newly formed American Navy. For a variation, you might go with the flag of the Culpeper Minutemen of Virginia. In recent years, the Gadsden flag has become something of a tea party and libertarian sigil, and if you’re worried about the implication that you might seem to be endorsing an expansion of state’s rights or even secession, it might not be the right option. But there’s something both appealing and important about the idea that our national identity is a river fed by many tributaries and ideas from many regions.
5. The Cherokee Nation flag: It’s best to be careful when hoisting the cultural symbols of a community that’s not your own. But this orange flag with yellow stars representing the Cherokee clans and a black star to represent the Trail of Tears is a striking symbol of a Southern history that’s obscured by narrowing our lens to focus only on blackness and whiteness. The South’s shame and the region’s legacy of resistance and self-preservation aren’t limited only to our struggles over slavery. Native Americans play a critical role in Southern— and American — history. There’s power in a flag that reminds us of that.
6. The Girl Scout flag: The current Girl Scout flag was adopted in 1991, but the organization’s history in the United States begins in Savannah, Ga., where Juliette Gordon Low called the first meeting of the first American chapter of the Girl Guides in 1912. Her early recruits included both socialites and orphans, Jews and Christians. Troops for black Girl Scouts were formed in 1917 and for Latinas by 1922. And Girl Scouts formed troops in internment camps during World War II. If you want a symbol of internationalism, inclusiveness and peace, all with Southern origins, the Girl Scout flag might be the banner for you.
7. A banner with the number “96” on it: To come back to Charleston, and to the bloody history that makes the terror at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church a tipping point in our treatment of the Confederate flag, it’s worth looking at the flag that played a role in Denmark Vesey’s planned slave revolt (Emanuel was Vesey’s church). In some versions of the history of the revolt, the plot was uncovered when two slaves struck up a conversation over a ship flying an unusual standard with “96” emblazoned on it. One confided in the other about the plan and tried to recruit him; he unburdened himself, and Vesey’s plot was shattered. Whether it’s true or not, flying a “96” flag could be a way of symbolizing the unquenchable urge for freedom, which can’t be contained in any single movement.