The flag of South Carolina is a white palm tree against a blue background, meant to represent liberty, heroics and independence emulated by the state’s troops in the American Revolution. However, its reverence is rivaled by the Confederate Battle Flag, ubiquitous throughout the state and the American South writ large. It flies in the State Capitol. It can be seen on bumper stickers, front porches, or flying out of the back of a pickup truck like some sort of homage to Braveheart. The flag is even on display at South Carolina’s premiere military college, the Citadel, known for having educated thousands of highly trained military officers to serve in the same military that defeated the would-be country the flag represents.
During the 2014 South Carolina gubernatorial election, the Confederate flag’s use did eventually become an issue. However, Governor Nikki Haley was quick to refute the controversy, positing that the state had already, “really fixed all that.” The “that” in question referred to racism, implying that it was time to move on by flying a flag of a 150-year old rebellion. Yet despite claiming to have solved all of racism, controversy about the flag continues to press on, even if the controversy in question is whether or not a state is justified in displaying the flag of its failed (and illegal) succession attempt in public buildings. No one’s talking about the numerous other Confederate flags that punctuate the South Carolina landscape like Duncan Donuts do New England, and, if anything, have grown in number since the election of the first black president.
None of this is to rag on South Carolina in particular. In fact, it can be said in a lot of ways that by not actually including the Confederate Battle Flag as its actual state flag (as Mississippi and Georgia have done), South Carolina is perhaps relatively progressive. But the flag is a separate issue that comprises a much larger one: the legacy of slavery, Confederacy, and succession in a region of the country that still sings “Dixie” at football games.
The Deep South is crisscrossed in nearly every population center with some landmark to the Confederacy, ranging from a stone slab meant to commemorate a fallen solider, to a Mount Rushmore-like stone carving of Confederate Leaders on the site at which the Klu Klux Klan was founded. However, monuments highlighting and thus subverting the reasons for the Confederacy’s founding (no, not states rights, the real one) are conspicuously absent. There is no national slavery memorial in the US and, up until recently, there was not a single museum solely dedicated to the history of American slavery.
This is made in turn even more upsetting by the fact that the United States does not necessarily have a problem with museums that confront past atrocities. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is one of the largest and most prestigious of its kind in the world, and it is by no means the only center dedicated to the study of and education about the holocaust in the US. Even in Atlanta, Georgia, where a lynching of a Jewish man in the early 20th century inspired the rebirth of the Klan, there is a holocaust museum of its own. And yet this same city, the birthplace of the civil rights movement, keeps a fairly tight lid on the part of its history that involved profiting off an evil system.
What’s even more disconcerting is that it’s not as if this fundamental deficiency applies to the whole history of the struggle for racial equality. Birmingham, Alabama has an incredible museum about the history of the civil rights movement, and Atlanta recently opened the National Center for Civil and Human Rights this summer. But the issue of slavery is usually relegated to a background position, if discussed at all. As for the place most inextricably tied to this history, such as the well preserved and beautifully landscaped plantations found across the region, slavery can even take on a disturbingly positive spin; framed as a “necessary evil” to bring forth the antebellum civilization we can admire in hindsight. Walking through manicured lawns and freshly painted houses, it can be easy to forget that less than two centuries ago, these grounds were the result of slavery’s brutality and bloodshed. Instead, visitors to such sites are invited to approach the scene with an aesthetic eye rather than a historical one.
This underscores a larger, uneasy historical détente in the South: civil rights are a touchable subject, as long as it’s presented as a past movement and cleansed of all but the most conservative leaders, but slavery is largely off limits. For the rare occasions when it is, a twisted narrative about slavery is often used to “spark conversation,” which in turn easily devolves into justification for one of the worst chapters of America’s history.
This endemic discomfort towards slavery is by no means just a Southern trend. After all, it is the entire United States, not just the South, which lacks a national memorial to slavery. But given the direct link between so much of Southern society and the “peculiar institution,” as it was once referred to, it is horrifying to think about this collective, institutionalized lack of such recognition by the lower half of the country.
The South is no stranger to history. In fact, “history” is usually held up as the reason to preserve Confederate flags, or name schools after Confederate generals, or gather around with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and sing “Old Black Joe.” But the love affair with history ends when the horror of reality begins. Embracing the past cannot be a selective stance, and as convenient as it might be for Southern politicians to recall the glory days of Gone with the Wind, or pledge to stand and fight for “our cultural heritage,” there is something much darker behind such battle cries.
There is no authentic recording from the civil war time period of the infamous Confederate “rebel yell,” that signaled a battle charge by Confederate infantrymen. But the spirit of the cry can still be heard in the charges of “cultural preservation” or anger at “agitators” who are trying to “revise” history — tropes that are often employed to protect symbols of the Confederacy or soften the historical narrative towards the South. Slavery will always be an unfortunate but misunderstood aspect of this alternative history. There are still plantations, Confederate flags still fly and many of the same themes are still echoed across Southern politics: states’ rights, limited government and traditional values. While small pockets of progressive politics do exist in the urban capitols of the region, they are restrained. Not only are they severely outnumbered, but they are also going up against a culture that values the story of its past at an almost manic level. Even in upper south states like North Carolina, less than half of the population expresses contentment with the Union victory, now approaching its 150th anniversary.
The “New South” is another phrase that many southern politicians love to throw around, and have been since Jimmy Carter. But “New South” only makes since in so much as the South is willing to accept new things; part of that acceptance may involve confronting a legacy of racism, succession and tragedy that has haunted Dixie for centuries. The saying goes that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it; an apt warning for a region that from flags to farmlands has shown many indications of trying to do so already.