The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Confederate flag largely disappeared after the Civil War. The fight against civil rights brought it back.

Authorities removed the fourth and final Confederate-related statue in New Orleans on May 19. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Last week, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu oversaw the removal of four Confederate monuments. It was just the latest chapter in the contentious battle over the official display of Confederate symbols.

By now, the debate is familiar. People who favor removal say Confederate icons symbolize white supremacy. People who favor displaying these icons see them as racially innocuous reminders of history.

But what is less well-known is the actual history of these symbols after the Civil War — and this history sheds important light on the debate. Confederate symbols have not always been a part of American or Southern life. They largely disappeared after the Civil War. And when they reappeared, it was not because of a newfound appreciation of Southern history.

Instead, as we argue in a newly published article, white Southerners reintroduced these symbols as a means of resisting the Civil Rights movement. The desire to maintain whites’ dominant position in the racial hierarchy of the United States was at the root of the rediscovery of Confederate symbols.

To understand what motivated the newfound interest in Confederate symbols, we followed the historical record. We examined a range of documents, including the Congressional Record, debates in state legislatures and other period documents. Our goal was to understand the goals of those supporting Confederate symbols, using their own words in many cases. Here is what we found.

For several decades after the Civil War, the Confederate battle emblem was rarely displayed — typically only during tributes to actual Confederate veterans. It was not part of state flags or other official symbols or displays. In fact, the Confederate battle flag was so uncommon that in 1930, Sen. Coleman Livingston Blease had to have one specially made by the Daughters of South Carolina for him to display in his office.

It wasn’t until 1948 that the Confederate flag re-emerged as a potent political symbol. The reason was the Dixiecrat revolt — when Strom Thurmond led a walkout of white Southerners from the Democratic National Convention to protest President Harry S. Truman’s push for civil rights. The Dixiecrats began to use the Confederate flag, which sparked further public interest in it.

Consequently, the flag became strongly linked to white supremacy and opposition to civil rights for African Americans. In 1951, Rep. John Rankin (D-Miss.), a very outspoken segregationist, proudly announced that he had “never seen as many Confederate flags in all my life as I have observed floating here in Washington during the last few months.” Rankin himself wore a Confederate flag necktie to serve as a constant reminder of his opposition to “beastly” integration policies.

In 1954, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered the desegregation of public primary schools, focused the energies and ire of hardcore segregationists throughout the South. Efforts to resist school integration and other civil rights protections for African Americans included the display of Confederate symbols and especially the Confederate battle flag.

For example, within a year of Brown, there was a push to redesign Georgia’s state flag to incorporate the Confederate battle emblem. The flag containing the emblem was designed by John Sammons Bell, chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party and leader of the powerful Association of County Commissioners (ACC).

The ACC adopted and circulated resolutions supporting the Confederate emblem as “symbolic of the traditions it represents … ” One resolution made clear what those traditions were: it stated that Brown was “an affront and challenge to the traditions of our people … [and] this Association and its members … pledge … to protect and maintain the segregation of the races in our schools.” None of the ACC resolutions mentioned Confederate soldiers or their cause.

The new flag was approved by the Georgia legislature and officially adopted in 1956. Denmark Groover, who guided the bill through the State House, frankly admitted that “the Confederate symbol was added mostly out of defiance to federal integration orders.”

The current debates over Confederate symbols were ignited by Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. The racially motivated killings produced new opposition to Confederate icons in public spaces. Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina called for the removal of the flag from the grounds of the state Capitol, and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe began the process of removing it from state license plates. Local governments throughout the South began considering the removal of monuments memorializing the Confederate cause and the renaming of school districts, highways and parks that honor Confederate figures.

But not everyone has reacted that way. In late May, Alabama legislators approved a bill aiming to prohibit the “relocation, removal, alteration, renaming, or other disturbance of any architecturally significant building, memorial building, memorial street, or monument” that has stood on public property for 40 years or more. Mississippi has a similar policy.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has also declared April to be “Confederate Heritage Month” and April 24 to be “Confederate Memorial Day.” In Georgia, state Rep. Tommy Benton (R) recently introduced similar resolutions. Benton’s bill died in the Georgia General Assembly, but its introduction, and similar moves elsewhere in the Deep South, shows that many politicians remain committed to protecting Confederate symbols.

Today, many proponents of Confederate symbols do not appeal directly to racial animus. Still, the politics of Confederate symbols have not changed completely: In surveys of whites, racial animus correlates strongly with support for Confederate symbols. Opponents of these symbols continue to make the connection to race. Alabama state Sen. Hank Sanders, an African American, spoke against his state’s bill by saying: These bills “are protecting monuments that represent oppression to a large part of the people in the state of Alabama.”

The actual history of these Confederate symbols suggests that Sanders is right. These symbols were not widely used after the Civil War, but were reintroduced in the middle of the 20th century by white Southerners to fight against civil rights for African Americans. These basic historical facts provide more reasons to dispense with narratives of a racially innocuous Confederate past.

Logan Strother recently completed his PhD in political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. In the fall, he will be a postdoctoral fellow in the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University.

Thomas Ogorzalek is assistant professor in political science and urban studies at Northwestern University.

Spencer Piston is assistant professor in political science at Boston University.