Published on January 26th, 2016 | by TLV News1
A Response to “In Defense of Confederate Symbols” by James Thomas
As I sat at Big Bad Breakfast flipping through the pages of The Local Voice, I came upon Peter Wirth’s “In Defense of Confederate Symbols.” In it, Wirth engages in a fascinating form of willful ignorance. Writing that “any symbol can be used for almost any emotion and almost any purpose,” Wirth ignores that Confederate iconography derives its shared meaning through collective use. By neglecting the origins and intentions of the Confederate battle flag, and its collective use thereafter, Wirth puts forth a defense that is both a historical and disingenuous.
The “Southern cross” was designed in 1861 by William Porcher Miles, an extremist anti-abolitionist, and chair of the Confederacy’s flag committee. Though the committee rejected Miles’s design, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia adopted it as their battle flag. In 1862 George Bagby, then-editor of the widely popular Southern Literary Messenger, described Miles’s design, and its use by Lee’s army, as a constellation pointing toward the destiny of white supremacy:
The truth is, we shall see the Southern Cross ere the destiny of the Southern master and his African slave is accomplished. That destiny does not stop short of the banks of the Amazon…the natural heritage of the Southron and his domestic slave. They alone can achieve its conquest and lay its untold wealth a tribute at the feet of commerce, the Queen consort of King Cotton.
Bagby is, of course, referencing the desire among many wealthy Southern whites to expand the Confederacy, and slavery, into Latin America.
In 1863, growing frustration with the first flag of the Confederacy led to the commission of a new design. William Tappan Thompson, co-founder and editor of Savannah, Georgia’s Daily Morning News, took the lead and created the “Stainless Banner,” which remained the flag until 1865 when it was modified to include a red vertical bar. The Stainless Banner displayed the Southern cross in the upper left corner against an all-white background. In a series of editorials Thompson penned between April 23rd and May 4th, of 1863, he wrote of the Stainless Banner, “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.” For Thompson, the Stainless Banner was “[to] be hailed by the civilized world as the white man’s flag.” He would conclude the flag “is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism.”
Ignoring this historical record, Wirth asserts that if we studied the Civil War from all perspectives, we’d conclude that racism is not exclusive to the South. This is a pathetic attempt at misdirection. We needn’t conclude racism is only endemic to the South to conclude the Confederate battle flag’s origins are rooted in white supremacy. Wirth asks us to consider whether the flag has always stood for slavery. The answer is, unquestionably, yes. The historical record confirms this.
Wirth’s defense also rests upon a false binary between social and economic justice and the “feeble gesture of good will” to remove the Confederate flag from public spaces. For Wirth, this is “American exceptionalism,” and allows Americans to claim we are perfect because we repudiate the Confederacy. The logical leap one has to make to arrive at this conclusion is astounding. There is no binary between eliminating symbols of white supremacy and fighting for social justice. The two have been, and remain, imbricated. Quoting Eugene Genovese, Wirth then claims the disavowal of the Confederate flag from public property represents the erosion of southern white identity. On the contrary, if Wirth, quoting Genovese, believes “Southerners, black and white, have over time created tradition that values honor, duty, and community,” then the disavowal of Confederate iconography represents the buttressing of that new southern identity, not its dismantling.
The most glaring omission from Wirth’s defense, however, is the issue of what is just. Wirth makes two egregious errors: he conflates what is just with what is popular, and he conflates majority rule for democracy. For Wirth, if a majority of Mississippians vote to retain the current state flag with its Confederate battle flag emblem, then it is just because it is a democratic conclusion. It is worth reminding readers, however, that in The Federalist Papers James Madison, primary author of the US Constitution, wrote that a truly representative government is one that is “derived from the great body of society, not from an inconsiderable portion or favored class of it.” We have numerous examples, in the U.S. and abroad, where majority rule has been used to usurp the rights of other human beings. The Nazis, for example, ascended to power in 1933 with the highest voter support of any party since 1919. In their twenty-five point platform leading up to the election, the Nazis had promised, “Only those who have German blood, regardless of creed, can be our countrymen. Hence no Jew can be a countryman.” Were the Nazis popular? Absolutely. Did they receive the most support among German voters? Undeniably. Were the Nazis, then, just? Emphatically no.
To date, defenders of the Confederate battle flag refuse to engage with this question of what is just, no doubt because the historical record clearly shows there is no moral ground upon which to stand. The flag was founded upon white supremacy, and was used to symbolize it from the mid-19th century through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, as thousands of southern white men and women coupled brutal acts of terror against black men, women, and children with displays of the flag. Following the modern Civil Rights movement to dismantle legal segregation, the flag remains a symbol of its legacy, disguised through not-so-subtle homages to the “Old South,” or “heritage.” Such homages, however, require a willful ignorance toward the reality that the South has always contained nonwhites who suffered greatly at the expense of the Confederacy, and who continue to struggle under its legacy.
I, along with many others, welcome a debate over the public endorsement and display of symbols on the campus of the University of Mississippi, as well as the rest of Oxford. However, that debate rests upon a respect for evidence and fact. To date, proponents of Confederate iconography, including Wirth, have engaged in a coordinated effort to deny evidence and fact, and in some instances, to even invent the historical record. That these tactics are commonplace among defenders of Confederate iconography suggests their defense has less to do with protecting shared values of honor, duty, or community, and more to do with defending white supremacy.
James M. Thomas (JT)
Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of Mississippi
Click the link to read the original article by Peter Wirth, “In Defense of Confederate Symbols.”