The Campaign Against the Confederate Battle Flag

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2015, All Rights Reserved

July 9, 2015 saw Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, sign the bill removing the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capital. This ended a decades long struggle. The flag came down the next day, to be placed in a museum. This was triggered by the massacre of nine African Americans participating in a Bible study group in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston on June 17 by a white supremacist.

In 1961 (on the centennial of the beginning of the Civil War with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor), South Carolina had hoisted the flag to protest federal policies challenging racial segregation policies. The South Carolina NAACP launched a boycott to protest this. While a 2000 compromise later removed the flag from flying over the state house to being placed by the Confederate Memorial next to the state house, the boycott continued. Impassioned pleas in the South Carolina legislature for the flag’s removal came from Paul Thurmond, son of Strom Thurmond, the segregationalist Dixiecrat presidential candidate in 1948, and Jenny Horne, whose ancestors include Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

This dramatic sequence of events followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision upholding the right of the state of Texas to deny descendants of Confederate soldiers special license plates decorated with the Confederate battle flag. Several Southern States still allow this. However, Virginia’s governor ordered the recall of 1,700 such license plates. This followed the decision of a federal judge invalidating his 2001 decision requiring Virginia to offer these plates to the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

There are now efforts in several venues to ban the flag and to remove Confederate memorials from public areas, including buildings. The governor of Alabama quickly followed suit after the South Carolina vote by ordering the removal of the battle flag from the grounds of its state capital. The most notable attempt now to remove the flag is taking place in Mississippi, whose state flag includes the Confederate battle cross. In 2001, the state’s voters approved retaining this symbol by a more than a 2-1 margin. In August, the head football coaches at Ole Miss and Mississippi State, along with the state’s football icon Archie Manning, joined other notable non-sports celebrities calling for removal of this emblem from the state flag.

Major controversies are taking place in New Orleans and Memphis. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in July demanded the removal of statues of Robert E. Lee, Pierre G.T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis and a monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, honoring the coup that toppled that integrated Reconstruction government of the city. On August 13, the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission voted 11-1 to authorize their removal. The final authority lies with the City Council, which can declare them to be public nuisances. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal opposes their removal and is seeking state authority to override the city’s right to proceed.

In Memphis, the effort to remove the grave of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest and his monument from a public park named for him has been long standing. Opponents of the park pointed to his being a slave trader before the Civil War, then after the Civil War being the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, and his command of the Confederate forces involved in the massacre of black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864 (both of the latter charges contested by Forrest admirers). The local spokesperson for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who support continuation of the park, say that Forrest was “a great community man. He was an inspiration for everyone.” This sentiment was echoed by Forrest’s great-great-grandson, a Memphis resident. A. C. Wharton Jr., the African American mayor of a majority black city, supported the 2013 act of the city council to remove Forrest’s name from the park. In July 2015, the Memphis City Council unanimously voted to remove the statue and Forrest’s remains from the park. The state of Tennessee’s Historical Commission will still have to waive a state heritage law prohibiting war memorial changes in order for Memphis to proceed.

These examples are only a few of the disputes now occurring not just in the South but nationally over school buildings, roads, and parks named after famous Confederates; monuments honoring Confederate generals at places like Monument Avenue in Richmond and Stone Mountain, Georgia; “rebel” nicknames of athletic teams; and other similar issues. Meanwhile, retailer Wal-Mart has stopped selling items like the Confederate battle flag and other private organizations are being lobbied to disassociate themselves from the flag. It took the shocking event in Charleston to generate these many efforts to place the Confederate battle flag where it belongs – in historical museums of the Civil War.

Related links:
The Confederate Battle Flag, Personal License Plates, and Litigation
Jefferson Davis Monuments Being Removed?
Some Thoughts on the Removal of Southern Civil War-Related Symbols
Whose Maryland?