So much for that. On Friday, Haley declared the Confederate flag was “hijacked” by the racism of a single white supremacist terrorist in 2015, and that before then, “people saw it as service, sacrifice and heritage.” While perhaps a shrewd statement for a potential presidential run, Haley was not presenting accurate history.
Indeed, the flag had long been tied to white supremacy, racism and racial violence. The Confederate flag was already tied to racism in 2000 when the state legislature agreed to move it from the top of the capital to the nearby Confederate monument where it would remain for the next 15 years. Indeed, the flag had first flown at South Carolina’s State House, at least partially in response to federal orders to desegregate. The Confederate flag was a favorite symbol of those resisting the civil rights movement, including, in this case, the South Carolina government.
It was no accident that in 1948, the pro-segregation Dixiecrat party flew the Confederate flag as part of an openly racist campaign. With a platform that declared “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race,” the party opposed “the elimination of segregation,” “social equality” or “the repeal of miscegenation statutes.” At the Dixiecrats’ 1948 convention, supporters of Strom Thurmond — then governor of South Carolina — held up Confederate flags and pictures of Robert E. Lee.
When Haley says South Carolina doesn’t have “hateful” people, she obscures the long history of racist hatred demonstrated alongside the Confederate banner. Look no further than Charleston in 1875, where armed members of the Carolina Rifle Club of Charleston marched through town behind a Confederate flag in an effort to intimidate black voters as part of a statewide white-supremacist campaign that included voter intimidation, ballot box stuffing and terrorism.
White supremacists at the time did not need to appropriate the symbol; it already belonged to them. Indeed, the flag first flew in front of an all-white army fighting to create a slaveholders’ republic. In 1864, it was under the Confederate flag that Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops killed unarmed U.S. Army soldiers at Fort Pillow in Tennessee because of the color of their skin.
It is important to note how Confederates understood their cause and symbols. The second national flag of the Confederacy, often called the “stainless banner,” was a white flag with the Confederate battle flag in the canton designed to symbolically evoke racial pride. An 1863 editorial supporting the new design declared that "as a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.”
The white-supremacy movement did not hijack the memory of the Confederacy; in many ways, the modern white-supremacist movement evolved out of the failed Confederate movement. Confederate veterans were rarely embarrassed when called white supremacists. In fact, Julian Carr, who led the United Confederate Veterans and spoke at more Confederate monument dedications than perhaps any other North Carolinian, campaigned for U.S. Senate in 1900 under the slogan, “The White Man Must Rule or Die.” He lost his primary because he was seen as too friendly toward African Americans.
As an academic, I study how bad history has contemporary consequences. Carr and other early-20th-century political leaders justified Jim Crow laws with false memories of America’s past, especially regarding the Civil War. Recently, there has been a similar influx of inaccurate, often disingenuous history deployed by conservative commentators. While pundits love to talk about “competing visions of America’s future,” we might also say our polarized politics are partially driven by competing visions of America’s past.
Whitewashed history and a lack of empathy, promoted by political leaders, seem to foster nostalgia for a past than never was. Bad history allows the terrorist attacks at Charleston and Charlottesville to appear as aberrations instead of part of a longer history of white-supremacist violence.
Only by ignoring the long history of racial discrimination and violence can we pretend racism is just a problem in the hearts of a few and not a persistent, institutional issue. Indeed, racism and white identity politics still play a major role in our political discourse. Pretending racism isn’t a problem may appeal to some white voters, but it’s bad for the country.