History Column

A Signal for Controversy

By Sarah Becker

In June, readers were encouraged to remember Flag Day, a June 14th celebration which officially began in 1949.  In the introduction I wrote: George Washington’s Headquarters Flag, with its 13 stars, stood witness to the most pivotal battles of the American Revolution.  Not all flags are as enduring.  These days the Confederate flag has become…a signal for controversy.


“Alexandria flies the [Confederate] flag [because] it has a special place in the hearts of those who honor their noble, albeit defeated, ancestors,” the Alexandria Gazette wrote in 1970.  Black citizens, who associated the rebel flag with slavery, Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, had ripped the flag to shreds.


Segregationist James M. Thomson, Alexandria’s Democratic majority floor leader of the Virginia House of Delegates, defended “the rights of those who cherish the [Confederate] flag as part of Virginia’s heritage.”


Unexpectedly, on June 17, 2015 Dylann Roof joined Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel A.M.E. church members for Bible class.  He listened, for an hour, to Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s religious lesson.  Then, tragically and without warning, Roof drew a semi-automatic gun.  He came to kill African-Americans.

History-Dylann Roof, Murder Suspect

Roof murdered nine A.M.E. church members including Rev. Pinckney.  Photos later showed him holding not only a firearm but also a Confederate flag.  Young Roof preached white supremacy.


The Confederate flag did not exist prior to 1861.  On December 20, 1860 South Carolina voted to secede, to dissolve the Union.  Having decided that “no proposition for a compromise with the North…will be entertained,” South Carolina volunteers seized three of Charleston’s four federal forts: Moultrie, Johnson and Castle Pinckney.


President James Buchanan declined South Carolina’s December 28-29 demand to remove all Federal troops from Charleston.  To the contrary Buchanan announced that Fort Sumter would be defended.  President-elect Abraham Lincoln agreed.


On February 9, 1861 the Confederacy organized.  The Confederate states included South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Slavery was permitted; the introduction of slaves from any State not a member of the Confederacy was not.


“A strong and vigorous Government went into immediate operation [and] a committee was appointed to report on a flag, seal, coat of arms and motto for the Confederacy.”  Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President, the song Dixie was sung, and states’ rights became a common refrain.


“The gage is thrown down and we accept the challenge,” the Charleston Mercury wrote.  “We will meet the invader, and God and Battle must decide the issue between the hirelings of Abolition hate and Northern tyranny, and the people of South Carolina defending their freedom.”

“Col. Carroll was specially charged by South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens with superintending the preparation of the Confederate Flag designed for Fort Sumter,” the Alexandria Gazette reported.  “Gov. Pickens knew that if General Pierre G.T. Beauregard ordered South Carolina to place a Confederate Flag over Fort Sumter the order would be executed.”


America’s Civil War began April 11-12, 1861 when South Carolina, under the direction of General Beauregard, finally fired on Fort Sumter.  Sumter’s Union commander, lacking adequate supplies, surrendered on April 13.  Two days later President Lincoln declared a state of insurrection.


“I have received your communication, mailed [April 15th] in which I am requested to detach from the Militia of the State of Virginia ‘the quota designated in a table,’ which you append, ‘to serve as infantry or riflemen for the period of three months, unless sooner discharged,’” Governor John Letcher wrote the Secretary of War on April 16, 1861.  The Secretary asked the states for 75,000 soldiers.


“In reply…I have only to say that the Militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington for any such use or purpose as they have in view,” Letcher continued.  “Your object is to subjugate the Southern states, and a requisition made upon me for such an object—an object, in my judgment, not within the purview of the Constitution or the Act of 1795, will not be complied with.  You have chosen to inaugurate civil war and, having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined by the Administration and exhibited towards the South.”  On April 18, 1861 Virginia became the eighth state to secede from the Union.


The Confederate flag, its many reiterations, retired with the Civil War.  Passions flared briefly when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875.  In 1887 and 1896 Charleston unveiled two Monuments to South Carolina’s pro-slavery Senator John C. Calhoun.  Alexandria dedicated a Confederate Statue in 1889.  Virginia law forbids its removal.


Strom Thurmond personifies the South’s segregated post-world war culture.  In 1948 the South Carolina Governor founded the short-lived States Rights Democratic Party.  Thurmond opposed incumbent President Harry S. Truman’s reelection bid.  Truman supported civil rights and military integration; Thurmond did not.  Dixiecrats, or SRDP, competed in the 1948, 1956 and 1960 presidential elections.  Governor Thurmond served in the U.S. Senate from 1954 until 2003.


Racial gains, including Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954, fueled SRDP rhetoric.  The Civil War’s 1961 multi-year Centennial celebration provided the podium.  South Carolina reintroduced the Confederate flag on April 11, 196l.


On May 17, 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously concluded that America could no longer educate its young in segregated public schools.  Brown v. the Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson’s 1896 separate but equal doctrine.


“These [Brown] cases come to us from the States of Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware,” U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren said.  “They are premised on different facts…but a common legal question justifies…this consolidated opinion.  Segregation of white and Negro children in the public schools of a State solely on the basis of race…denies to Negro children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”


In 1956 Senators Strom Thurmond (D-SC) and Harry F. Byrd, Sr. (D-VA) co-wrote the Southern Manifesto, the Declaration of Constitutional Principles.  “We regard the decision of the Supreme Court in the school cases as a clear abuse of judicial power.  It climaxes a trend in the Federal Judiciary undertaking to legislate…to encroach upon the reserved rights of the States.”  They massively resisted Brown.


The southern loss was complete with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  White reactionaries again unfurled the flag.  Today the Confederate flag symbolizes heritage; opposition to people of color, alleged federal overstep and government excess generally.


“Of course the flag has to do with heritage, but it’s a heritage of white supremacy and racism,” South Carolina N.A.A.C.P. President Dr. Lonnie Randolph Jr. said in 2000.


“The N.A.A.C.P.’s protest [boycott] led in 2000 to the flag’s being removed from the Statehouse dome and from the House and Senate Chambers to a monument outside the Statehouse, to the Heritage Act 2000,” The New York Times reported in 2011.  “But one of the most perplexing examples of the contradictions of this moment is that Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s first governor of color continues to fly the Confederate Flag.”


On July 10, 2015 South Carolina’s Confederate flag came down.  Sadly, it took white supremacist Dylann Roof to make the N.A.A.C.P.’s case.  Governor Haley, a Republican whose parents came from India, “changed her stance” because death spoke.


Alexandria stopped flying the Confederate flag over City Hall in 1970.
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