Rebels Without a Cause

The Confederate flag has watched its official clout steadily erode since the turn of the millennium. Georgia removed the “Stars and Bars” as the focal point of its state flag. Louisiana State University banned merchants from blending school colors with the rebel insignia in order to formally disassociate LSU athletics. National boycotts of the state of South Carolina led the state assembly to relocate the Confederate flag from atop the capitol dome to a more obscure location on capitol grounds. And most recently, presidential candidates from both major parties have joined with civil rights organizations in calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from the South Carolina statehouse grounds altogether.

But it appears that the more government and University officials question the appropriateness of having the high symbol of failed Southern secession in the public square, the more merchants are able to benefit from increased demand for Confederate paraphernalia. Many white Southerners still love their reminders of the “Old South.” After Georgia removed the rebel insignia, retailers could not meet the overwhelming demands for the previous state flag. In what was clearly a response to protesters in Louisiana and South Carolina, there was a spike in requests for rebel car decals, bumper stickers, T-shirts and flags. In February 2008, a Florida lawmaker put forth a proposal to add a “Confederate Heritage” license plate to the specialty tag collection available in the state (see photo). And if persons want to show their “Dixie Pride” while purchasing such paraphernalia, the Sons of the Confederate Veterans have partnered with Visa to offer a credit card emblazoned with the images of Southern Civil War generals alongside the Confederate battle flag.

Being a proud Southerner myself, I often wonder why otherwise reasonable white Southerners—who live, work and play alongside persons of color and who are seemingly committed to this nation—pledge such allegiance to Confederate symbols. What is the point? Very few Southern whites desire the re-enslavement of African Americans (maybe legalized segregation, but that is a whole-nutha article). Nor do I think that the majority would associate with hate groups such as the KKK. But the Confederate faithful contend that honoring the Confederacy is about “heritage not hate.” They argue that the Civil War is a part of American history and that Confederate symbols are celebrated as rallying points of Southern pride, cultural freedom, and states’ rights.

Yet this makes little sense. Heritage and not hate? Cultural freedom and states’ rights? This line of Confederate defense is as historically anemic as it is logically flawed. There is no credible debate about whether the rebel flag points to the legacy of slavery and segregation grounded in white supremacy. Irrefutable evidence shows that preserving slavery was the primary cause of secession. What is more, consistent with Southern segregationist-era politics, as the modern civil rights movement made traction throughout the country, so did the visibility of Confederate symbols. Senator Strom Thurmond deployed the Stars and Stripes as the insignia of his Dixiecrat third-party presidential candidacy under the slogan “Segregation Forever!” And in 1956, the Georgia assembly voted to adopt the Confederate emblem in protest of the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling. These are the reasons that the Confederate battle flag remains the symbol of choice for a wide array of white supremacist organizations along with the Nazi swastika.

Yet I have come to realize that allegiance to Confederate symbols has little to do with facts and history, and everything to do with faith and honor. The Civil War serves as a productive part of the Southern imagination insofar as the religion of the Lost Cause affords persons the chance to claim an identity that transcends the false sense of security associated with white supremacy and the ethical insecurity concerning being sons and daughters of those on the wrong side of history. In short, masses of Southern whites have faith in their own mythology in order to ascribe honor where there is none. This is what the Religion of the Lost Cause is all about.

To be clear, by “Religion of the Lost Cause,” I am referring to the Southern civic faith that was constructed immediately following the Civil War. In the wake of a debilitating defeat and external political and economic pressures, the postbellum South needed a stable and coherent cultural identity in order to assuage the increased sense of inferiority and cultural anxiety. The defeated white male Southerner in particular needed a new sense of self now that visions of eternal racial dominance and aspirations of Southern gentility were laid to rest at the Courthouse of Appomattox. Hence a new narrative was developed and disseminated via pulpits and podiums throughout the South in order to help re-forge Southern white identity.

There are several central themes of this Southern civic faith. Confederate leaders are hoisted high as moral exemplars of Southern virtue and nobility. It is the role of the South to extend the legacy of Confederate leadership through a moral crusade against a lascivious and morally lax North. And in response to slavery’s defeat, Southern leaders revised the Confederacy narrative so that secession and subsequent war involved states’ rights and resistance against Northern cultural aggression as opposed to the preservation of slavery. Throughout the former Confederate states, Christian clergyman and educators blended scripture with this fictive history in order to establish the theologically-sanctioned regional myth; Southerners became, according to this myth, God’s chosen people, with a charge to revitalize the moral fabric of the region according to the rules and regulations of a mythic Confederate movement.

Unfortunately, the self image of a chosen people precludes the possibility of self-critique. In turn, many Southerners uncritically and unashamedly extolled the virtues of this self-constructed identity, while at the same time willfully ignoring the ways their cultural symbols and slogans are deeply embedded and dependent upon a history of racial apartheid and betrayal of the nation itself. It is this vision, colored by revisionist lenses, that explains why many white Southerners believe that they can celebrate the Confederacy and consider themselves American patriots, while keeping at bay the white supremacist and treasonous cultural meanings that are synonymous with whistling Dixie.

This is also why current pubic criticism of the rebel insignia only serves to strengthen the resolve of the Confederate faithful. Condemnation by government officials and national organizations (read: outside agitators) plays to the narrative that Southern mores are under siege. Being put in a defensive posture also allows the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy to extend the legacy of valiant rebellion that dates back to their pantheon of civic gods, i.e. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. And it enables them to garner militant support from sympathetic Southerners in rebellion against critics of the Confederacy who are trying to commit “cultural genocide” in the South by pointing out that the rebel flag remains a symbol of white supremacy and American treason. It matters little that “valiant rebellion” typically involves no more than a handful of Confederate flag wavers outside of a John McCain rally, waving a Confederate flag at a NASCAR event, or dining at the local Waffle House with their “Sons of Confederate Veterans” Visa cards. Contemporary soldiers of the Confederate may be committed rebels, but to what cause? It does not matter. This version of Southern pride is more symbolic than substantive.

I confess that I find this somewhat tragic, as I too have Southern pride. Aside from the velleity that describes the religion of the Lost Cause and the white supremacy that defines Confederate paraphernalia, there is such a rich history and heritage for Southerners to celebrate. It was Southern soil that gave birth to the original American musical art forms by way of the Negro Spirituals, blues, and jazz. Then there’s the great literary tradition that includes Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams. The South provided the modern civil rights movement that moved this nation closer to its ideals of freedom, justice, and democracy for all. And we should never overlook Southern sartorial splendor in the form of summer seersucker, and culinary combinations like chicken and waffles or fish and grits!

So with a region that produced SEC football, Coca-Cola and Jack Daniels, who needs Robert E. Lee and his Confederate battle flag. I devote myself to the former and toss the latter into the rubbish bin of history where they belong!

Tell us what you think! Send a Letter to the Editor at: [email protected].