Haley’s remarks are part of a long debate about the meaning of Confederate icons — a supposed tension between “hatred” and “heritage.” People who favor removal often say Confederate icons symbolize white supremacy, while people who favor displaying these icons tend to portray them as racially innocuous reminders of history.
The actual history of Confederate symbols after the Civil War sheds important light on the debate. Confederate symbols have not always been a part of American or Southern life. Many of them disappeared after the Civil War. When they reappeared, it was not because of a newfound appreciation of Southern history.
Instead, as we show in an article we published in 2017, white Southerners reintroduced these symbols primarily as a means of resisting movements toward racial equality. 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 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 (D-S.C.) had to have one specially made by the Daughters of South Carolina for him to display in his office.
The Confederate battle flag’s potency as a political symbol increased in 1948. 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 battle 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.), an 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 necktie with the flag pattern to signify 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.
The association 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 association’s 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, stated outright that “the Confederate symbol was added mostly out of defiance to federal integration orders.”
It is true that the racially motivated killings in Charleston produced new opposition to Confederate icons. Activist Bree Newsome scaled a 30-foot pole in June 2015 to remove the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State House grounds. Soon after, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) called for the removal of the flag from the grounds, and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) began the process of removing it from state license plates. Local governments throughout the South began considering the removal of Confederate monuments and the renaming of schools, highways and parks that honor Confederate figures.
But not everyone has reacted that way. In 2017, 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.
In 2016, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) declared April to be Confederate Heritage Month and April 24 to be Confederate Memorial Day. Similar legislation was introduced in Georgia. Though ultimately the Georgia legislation did not pass, its introduction and similar moves elsewhere in the Deep South show that many politicians remain committed to protecting Confederate symbols.
Today, many proponents of Confederate symbols do not appeal explicitly to racial animus, but the not-too-subtle message has gotten through. The politics of Confederate symbols bear more hallmarks of hatred than heritage. In a second part of our study, we analyzed public opinion data about the Confederate flag among Georgians and South Carolinians in the early 2000s, a decade before Roof “hijacked” the flag’s meaning, according to Haley.
In surveys of whites, racial animus correlates strongly with support for Confederate symbols, while affection for the South and knowledge of Confederate heritage do not. Moreover, African Americans in the South are far less supportive of the battle flag. So even though all Southerners ostensibly share elements of the same heritage, this symbol is interpreted through a racial lens.
Both proponents and 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 contradict narratives of a racially innocuous Confederate past.
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a piece that was originally published in 2017.
Logan Strother (@LoganRStrother) is an assistant professor of political science at Purdue University.
Thomas Ogorzalek (@TKOPolitics) is an assistant professor of political science and urban studies at Northwestern University and the author of “The Cities on the Hill: How Urban Institutions Transformed National Politics” (Oxford University Press, 2018).