Sometimes, it seems amazing how the simplest thing, even a small piece of cloth, can change history.
Since ancient times, flags have been used for many different reasons. They are identification when used to represent countries, organizations, regions, beliefs, even families. Flags can be used for signaling as in semaphore or starting and ending races. They can be used to mark locations as any golfer or diver can attest. But, one of the most enduring uses of flags is to inflame passions.
Flags and banners date back to the beginning of recorded history and probably even beyond. Early references to flags include the Derafsh Kasviani, the standard for the Sasanian Empire which ruled most of central Asia during the period of 224 to 651 AD The Eagle Banner of Augustus Caesar’s 10th Legion put the fear of the gods into many a barbarian in the glory days of the Roman Empire.
The oldest continuously used flag in the world is the Dannebrog, the national flag of Denmark. According to legend, the Dannebrog, translated as “Danish cloth,” first came to life in the year 1219 when the Danish were battling the Estonians near the present day city of Tallinn. As the Danes were losing badly, a Danish bishop, Anders Sunesen, stood atop a hill and started praying. The more he prayed, the more the battle turned in favor of the Danes. Eventually though, the bishop became so exhausted he couldn’t keep his arms raised. Even as Danish soldiers helped support his arms, he ultimately began to fade and the Danish again started losing the battle. As the Danes were on the verge of catastrophe, a red cloth with a white cross, the Dannebrog, descended from the sky. The Danish king, Valdemar II, scooped up the heaven sent flag and used it to rally his troops. The soldiers perceived it as divine intervention and were able to turn the battle and defeat the Estonians.
There is a certain hierarchy to flags that must be followed. Nations, states or provinces, counties, even cities and towns have their own flags. Sports teams, social organizations, religious groups, even car companies have their own flags and banners. National flags, however, take precedence over all others.
Today, as in the past, flags can bring out the best and the worst reactions in those that view them as a symbol. Patriotic Americans will stand and put their right hand on their heart at the raising, lowering, or passing by of the US flag. The German Nazi flag causes hatred and feelings of betrayal even today though the flag was based the hooked cross, an ancient Asian and Native American religious symbol. The hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union’s banner brought strong feelings of nationalism and pride to the Russians that lived under it. During its tenure while, during that same time, produced fear and antagonism from most of Europe and the United States. The Japanese military fought long and hard under a battle flag during World War II that depicted them as being the Land of the Rising Sun. And in the heyday of the British Empire, it was said that the sun never set on the British flag.
Recently, there has been a huge controversy in the US over the American Civil War banner known as the Confederate or Rebel flag. The flag in question was not the official national flag of the Confederacy. It was actually a Confederate naval battle flag, called the Second Confederate Navy Jack, and was very similar to the flag used by the Army of Northern Virginia. This flag is often referred to as the Dixie flag, the Southern Cross, and incorrectly as the Stars and Bars, which in reality was a totally different configuration.
After the Civil War, as is the case with the symbols of most defeated ideologies, the so-called Confederate flag had, for the most part, disappeared. It’s resurrection from obscurity began in the early 20th Century. With the phenomenal success of the movie, “Birth of a Nation” in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan, all but gone from existence, found new life and new members. By the 1930’s, the Klan boasted over 6 million members across the United States. It was during that time that the Army of Northern Virginia flag became the adopted symbol of the Klan.
At that time, the flag also became a symbol of anger and hate.
Currently, there is a huge emotionally vocal discourse about the flag. It’s ever present at Ku Klux Klan rallies, white supremacy hate group meetings, outlaw biker gangs club houses, and anywhere there is a need to demonstrate rebelliousness. In opposition to the 3%er’s and hate groups, there are organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, whose constitution prohibits support for any hate group. For them the flag is a symbol of the heroic history of their secession supporting predecessors. In fact, their take on the controversy is that the flag has been co-opted by the hate groups and should be viewed as a proud part of American history.
On the other side of the question are those who view the flag as a symbol of hate. To black Americans, the flag a reminder of the centuries their forbearers spent in bondage, slaves to a white society that treated them no better than cattle or horses or any other farm animal. To Jews, it’s a symbol of the anti-Semitic discrimination and hate espoused by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremist groups. Many consider the flag a banner for the wealthy 1% of Southerners who owned slaves and convinced their countrymen to go to war to fight and die to protect the slave owners’ right to keep their slaves. To most non-Southern Americans, the flag also represents NASCAR, country music, and less than sophisticated rednecks.
The battle over the Confederate flag had been dormant until the latest major racist atrocity in Charleston, SC. Dylan Roof, self-described racist and hopeful catalyst of a race war between whites and blacks in America, sat in a church bible reading for an hour before drawing his weapons and murdering nine black attendees at the meeting. Prior to the massacre, Roof posted photos on social media brandishing Confederate flags and burning an American flag. The resulting outrage led to the first meaningful discussion about the symbol that has caused so much hate and separation over the decades.
This discussion resulted in the South Carolina legislature, the first state to secede from the Union before the Civil War, to ban the flag from being flown on state government properties. It led major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target, Sears, and Amazon to discontinue carrying the tainted icon. This incident also spurred discussions to ban its use in other states that still include the design as part of their official banners.
Through his use of the flag as a symbol of hate, Dylan Roof has forever changed how the history of the Confederate flag and the flag itself is viewed.
Time will tell whether we’ve seen the passing of Dixie. Like the Nazi and Soviet flags and other symbols of defeated oppression, it’s time to put the Confederate flag to rest, to be displayed in museums and reenactments only. The pain, anguish, and hate generated by a symbol so closely associated with slavery and prejudice justifies banishing it from everyday life.
General Robert E. Lee, beloved hero to Southerners during and since the Civil War, was a reluctant warrior. An 1829 West Point graduate, he never stopped believing in the Constitution of the United States. However, his love for his home state of Virginia contributed to his decision to join the insurrection. But, after the war, even Lee distanced himself from the Star and Bars. “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of wars,” Lee stated in a letter. There were no flags, Confederate or otherwise, flown at his funeral.