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The Confederate Flag: Why “Heritage, Not Hate” Is Irrelevant

Ron is a student of African American history. His writing highlights the stories of people who overcame prejudice to achieve great things.

In the summer of 2015, former Democratic Congressman Ben Jones of Georgia was upset. The “General Lee,” that orange 1969 Dodge Charger made famous in the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, was about to lose its top, and Jones didn’t like it one bit.

You see, prominently displayed on the top of the General Lee was the Confederate battle flag. And now Warner Brothers Consumer Products, the company that produced General Lee model toys, was saying it would cease licensing merchandise emblazoned with the Confederate flag.

Model of the General Lee from "The Dukes of Hazzard"

Model of the General Lee from "The Dukes of Hazzard"

The General Lee’s rebel flag was an iconic image that symbolized, at least to Jones, everything The Dukes of Hazzard stood for. And Jones should know. He played “Cooter” on the show from 1979 to 1985. To him, “That flag on top of the General Lee made a statement that the values of the rural South were the values of courage and family and good times.”

Supporters of the Confederate Flag Say It Stands for Southern Pride

Jones is now a national spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), an organization that insists that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of slavery, racism, and oppression, as most African Americans perceive it to be. Rather, says the SCV, it represents the pride Southerners have in their ancestors who fought bravely for a noble cause. In the wake of the Charleston, South Carolina church massacre in which nine African Americans attending a Bible study were murdered by a white supremacist who considered the Confederate flag a fitting symbol of his beliefs, Ben Jones took to Facebook to make his feelings clear:

“Our beloved symbol is now being attacked in a wave of political correctness that is unprecedented in our nation of free speech and free expression. Activists and politicians are vilifying Southern culture and our heritage as being bigoted and racist. We know that this is not the case. And we know that in Hazzard County there was never any racism.”

While conceding that African Americans have a right to be offended by the flag, Jones sees such concerns as nothing more than their personal opinion. “They have a right to their opinion," he says, "and yes they find it offensive, but what they are saying is offensive to me. They don’t know my heart, don’t know the hearts of my people.”

Ben Jones defends the Confederate flag

But the issue goes far beyond personal opinion or what might be in any individual’s heart. Sociological research objectively demonstrates that the public display of the Confederate battle flag continues to be not just offensive, but an active threat to the well-being of people of color.

The Confederate Flag Remains Dangerous to African Americans Today

In 2008 Dr. Joyce Ehrlinger, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, led a team of researchers in a study designed to examine the impact of the Confederate flag on racial attitudes.

They conducted an experiment in which 108 white and 22 black students were shown one of two images on a computer screen. Each image was shown 20 times, but so briefly (15 milliseconds) that the viewer would not be consciously aware of seeing it. One image, shown to half the group, was of a neutral arrangement of colored lines. The other was a picture of the Confederate flag. Both sets of students were then asked which of a group of 2008 presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, and Mike Huckabee, they might likely vote for.

Barack Obama campaigning in 2007

Barack Obama campaigning in 2007

The result was as clear as it was startling. Because of the brevity of their exposure to the images, none of the participants were consciously aware of which image they saw. Yet the white students exposed to the Confederate flag were significantly less likely to say they might vote for Barack Obama, the only African American candidate, than were those who saw the neutral image.

According to the researchers, this experiment demonstrated that just seeing the Confederate flag, even subliminally, made white participants less likely to vote for a black person.

In a second experiment, a group of 116 white students were brought into a room and asked to sit at a desk. For half the students, there was a folder with a Confederate flag sticker on it lying on the desk. They were told that a participant in a previous unrelated study had accidentally left the folder behind. The other half of the students did not see the Confederate flag.

After being seated at the desk, the students were shown the picture of a young black man, and read a story about his behavior in a contentious but ambiguous situation. They were then asked to rate his character. The results of this experiment reinforced the conclusions of the first. Students who had been exposed to the Confederate flag on the folder were much more negative in their evaluations than those who did not see the flag sticker.

In their report, published in the journal Political Psychology, the research team concluded that just being exposed to the Confederate flag triggers racially biased attitudes, even among whites who are not consciously prejudiced. Clearly, even if the Confederate flag is a symbol of pride for those who honor it, it also carries a message of racial bias that can affect people at an unconscious level.

Whether or not the Confederate flag includes other nonracist meanings, exposure to this flag evokes responses that are prejudicial.

— Dr. Joyce Ehrlinger

For a detailed description of these experiments, please see:
Just Seeing the Confederate Flag Triggers Racism, Research Says

A Confederate Flag Thought Experiment

Let’s try another way of getting a handle on the real message of the Confederate flag.

Confederate flag on a barn

Confederate flag on a barn

This photograph of a barn with a Confederate flag hanging on it suggests a thought experiment that might help to clarify whether that flag should be seen as just a reminder of Southern pride, with no negative racial overtones, or as a potent symbol of continuing racial prejudice.

Put yourself in the shoes of a 25-year-old African American man. Your car has broken down on a rural back road in South Carolina. You can't get a cell phone signal, so you need to go to a nearby farmhouse to call for help. But as you walk onto the road leading to the farmhouse, you see this barn on the property, with the rebel flag proudly displayed.

As a young black man alone in a place where there would be no video cameras to record what really happened to you, do you think seeing that flag might affect your thinking with regard to the wisdom of walking up to the door of that farmhouse to ask for help?

Would you conclude that the display of the Confederate flag tells you something ominous about the property owner's attitude toward black people, or would you be confident that because the rebel flag simply represents the pride Southerners have in their history, there's nothing for you to worry about?

Take a moment to indicate how you would react

I'll confess that if it was me, I'd keep on walking and find somewhere else to phone for help. You say you'd stride confidently up to the door? Well, maybe you're more courageous than I am.

Man Shoots at Black 14-year-old Who Came to His Door for Directions

The Confederate Flag Cannot Escape Its History

The purpose of any flag is to function as a symbol that embodies certain ideas. The motives or intentions of a person who flies the Confederate flag today cannot change what it has symbolized for more than a century and a half.

When the soldiers of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia proudly marched under that banner as they fought against the United States, the Confederate battle flag was the approved and beloved symbol of their commitment to defending a system that was based on keeping black people enslaved. As the state of Mississippi explained in their official declaration of their reasons for seceding from the United States, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery."

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.

— The state of Mississippi's declaration of why it seceded from the Union, January 9, 1861

Every soldier who fought under the rebel flag knew he was fighting to preserve a way of life that was “thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” That was what that flag symbolized to those who flew it then. And that is what it inevitably symbolizes to the descendants of the victims of slavery today.

The Confederate Flag in the 20th Century

Throughout the 20th century, the Confederate flag was the banner under which organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, White Citizens Councils, the Dixiecrat political party, and more recently, numerous white supremacy groups have operated. It is thus associated with decades of prejudice, discrimination, vilification, and unrestrained violence against African Americans.

Ku Klux Klansmen with the Confederate flag

Ku Klux Klansmen with the Confederate flag

During the Civil Rights movement, various Southern states used the Confederate flag as a rallying point for their unbending resistance to Federal government efforts to enforce equal citizenship rights for African Americans. That’s what that flag officially symbolized in states like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina through much of the last century.

That is the “heritage” that is indelibly stamped on the Confederate flag by its history, and which no nostalgic longing to identify with noble and valiant ancestors who heroically fought for what they believed in can erase.

The Confederate Flag's History Defines Its Meaning Today

Perhaps Ben Jones is right in believing that those who proudly display the Confederate flag today have only pride and not hatred in their hearts. But even if that’s true, it cannot and does not change the significance embedded in that image by those whose shameful beliefs and actions have defined it throughout its history.

People of good will look forward with hope to a day when racial animosity is such a long-forgotten aberration that all Americans, black and white, can view the Confederate flag simply as an emblem of all that's best about the South. But that time is not yet. As long as racial hatred remains a reality among us, the Confederate battle flag will be its symbol.

In his message to Congress in 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln had a warning for the leaders of the nation in that momentous era:

“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”

Neither can the Confederate flag escape its history. And the fiery trials to which this country has been subjected under its shadow continue to light it down, in dishonor, to this generation and beyond.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 Ronald E Franklin


Bruce Wing on September 17, 2019:

I am now 51. I was born in Jacksonville, FL and - had my family not moved to Atlanta, then Birmingham, then Orlando - I would have gone to Robert E. Lee High School. In 5th grade, I remember writing a report on how much I admired Robert E. Lee. I liked the Confederate flag and viewed it as representing southern heritage and nothing more. One of my best friends at the time was Lawrence Striggles, a black kid. When I was married, my best friend and best man was Pat Murray, a black man.

It wasn’t until the monument controversy a year or two ago that I actually considered the flag from a black American’s point of view. I now see the flag as a disgusting symbol. It is the American equivalent of a Nazi flag.

Still, I ask for a little mercy for those that view the flag as I once did. Most simply are immersed in culture that has a falsely romantic view of history and an unthinking lack of empathy. Their behavior is rarely intentionally unkind. By the way, when discussing the issue (not debating it), I have found a gentle conversation regarding a fictional situation whereby some Germans fly the Nazi flag in the face of German Jews... to be an effective lever that results in an eventual change of heart.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on June 08, 2019:

Thanks, Jo. I'm sure you're right that most people who already have an emotional commitment to Confederate symbols won't have their minds changed by reading this article. But I believe there are many others who have never thought very deeply about these issues who can be persuaded by facts. That's my hope, at least.

Jo Miller from Tennessee on June 08, 2019:

Well done, as usual, Ron. Very well documented and explained. I doubt, however, such reasoned arguments will change any minds.

I live in a rural area of Middle Tennessee, very near where I grew up in southern Kentucky. It's home and in many ways very dear to me. When I moved back here in 2004, I don't recall seeing a single Confederate flag flying. They seemed to discover their Southern heritage with the election of Obama. And when our current resident of the White House made racism seem more socially acceptable, they really proliferated.

I am a proud Southerner, born and bred. There are many things about the South that I treasure, like our hospitality, front porches and story telling--things you and I could both probably identify with and treasure. That awful, ugly war was not one of them and those who took up arms against our country were not heroes. They were traitors.

I see nothing to celebrate from that awful time in our history. Learn from it, sure, but not celebrate. And I see all those Confederate flags as racist and tacky.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on July 19, 2018:

Thanks, Patricia. As I mention in the article, I look forward to a day when the Confederate has been so drained of its poisonous symbolism that a Southerner like me (I'm from Tennessee) could see it raised and not feel threatened or that it communicated contempt for people like me. But, unfortunately, we're a long way away from that time.

Regarding removing Confederate symbols like the flag or monuments, it's not that every reminder of slavery must be removed, and it's certainly not that we need to expunge our past. But we do need to remove such symbols from any place of honor or celebration. So, put them in places where they can be seen in their historical context, and their true meaning highlighted.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 13, 2018:

Good morning I came and read this because I have written about this topic myself. I get your point...it is well stated. I grew up in the South and was raised by parents who taught me that no one was better than anyone else. I grew up in a town where we had only one Black family and they lived on the outskirts of town. They did not go to the elementary school that I went to nor did I see this family and my little friend except on Saturday when she rode to town with her Father. I have written about knowing her and being with her here on HubPages. I have also written about my experiences of being called a N-lover because the school bus let me off at our Black dentist's office as I was on the way home from school. But I digress. I just want to say...I do understand what you are saying ....that the young or old --for that matter--person who may find themselves stranded in a rural or not so rural area that has a Confederate flag flying may feel angst and fear. I do get that. But I would feel fear and angst if my car broke down in a section of town where I was unwelcome and there would be NO flag or anything to warn me. I would only sense it. So I DO get it. I still need to say as I said in the article I wrote on this topic that for me and for my family the Confederate flag is not a symbol of divisiveness or hate or anger ---we do not celebrate the war that killed so many and divided families irreparably....am I glad the war began to end slavery...because it did not really end it much to my great sorrow. NO man or woman or child should ever be treated the way the Black women and men and children were treated during slavery. It is a stain on humanity...any time in the history of our world not just here in our very own country--a stain that will forever remain. And hopefully it will serve to remind us of the egregrious wrongs that occurred and that we should never ever feel human lives can be bought and sold (sadly and outrageously it is still happening in the whole human trafficing that is happening as we speak). I do not brandish a Confederate flag anywhere...never have really. I just find it very concerning that we are removing bits of history bit by bit. What will be next? Will our national flag be found offensive by some group? Will having fireworks on the Fourth of July be offensive to someone? Already symbols of religious beliefs such as the Ten Commandments are disallowed on government property and I get that so some degree. It is my humble thought that erasing parts of history does not make them not have happened. We never ever should be allowed to forget the dark time in our history when slavery existed. And we must not turn our heads today when someone regardless of race or creed is killed under questionable circumstances. It is up to each of us to make this a country that is indeed serving out fairness and justice to ALL. If having flags in public places removed serves to move us more in that direction then it is a good thing. The experiments you shared using the flag or not was interesting but how could it be accurate? If you have been alive within the last 20 years or so the Confederate flag has been a HUGE bone of contention...so how could it not yield results such as occurred in the experiments? I imagine if I had been in the control group that saw the flag my reaction would have been quite different than if removal of the flags had not become such an important issue if that makes sense. So once again I concede that if the Confederate flag makes others feel fear then it should not be displayed. It is just concerning to me that removing pieces of history will continue and who knows what the next thing to be removed will be. And I am not speaking now of things that remind us of slavery or man's inhumanity to man but what? What may be next? SomeONE may be offended by someTHING such as happened with prayer in school and then it's gone. Anyway I have rambled on waaaaay too long. Your message in loud and clear and we need to hear about what we may not know and what makes us feel moved to speak out. Well said Ron. Angels are winging their way to you and into the hearts of each of us maybe to help us find a way to live and be at peace with one another. ps

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 18, 2017:

Thank you, Cynthia. In these turbulent times, we need to actually think these issues through rather than just react emotionally. I hope this article contributes to the "thinking through" process.

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on October 17, 2017:

Thanks for the education, Ronald. You clarified some things for me around the 'danger' that the Confederation Flag represents.

All the best, Cynthia

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 06, 2017:

Hi, Dolores. I think you're exactly right. The the activities people engaged in under that flag do not represent any positive heritage.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on September 27, 2017:

Hi Ronald - all feelings and studies aside, the Confederate flag represents an enemy of the United States of America. Also, the second article in the Confederate Articles of the Confederation was the right to own slaves. For me, that is enough. It's not about feelings but reality.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 12, 2017:

Thanks, MsDora. You make a good point. Many young people have been indoctrinated with "Lost Cause" romanticism about what the Confederacy then, and its flag today, stand for. My hope is that articles like this one will help some consider a different perspective.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 12, 2017:

Thanks for reading and commenting, wrenchBiscuit. I think there's a fundamental difference between a emblem intended to symbolize high ideals (the American flag, for example), even though we may fall short of those ideals in practice, and one that celebrates an ideology that is corrupt at its very foundation. As long as we are human, we will never fully achieve our ideals, but we need the symbols, like flags, that inspire us to keep striving to reach them.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on April 02, 2017:

Without articles like yours, the Sons of Confederate Veterans may be able to convince future students that the meaning they attach to the confederate flag is correct and acceptable. Thanks for the education.

Ronnie wrenchBiscuit on April 02, 2017:

Great article. It was a lot easier for the Germans after World War II to distance themselves from the atrocities of the war because they had the Nazi party to blame. But the Americans do not have such a convenient scapegoat. It wasn't the KKK who caused the deaths of 20,000 Freedmen at the Devils Punchbowl, but the Union Army a.k.a The United States Government. Nor was it any particular party or fringe group that perpetrated the Sand Creek Massacre, The Wounded Knee Massacre, The Trail of Tears or a host of other crimes against humanity.

In all of the above, it was the United States Government a.k.a "We The People". Thus, I agree with your assessment concerning the Confederate flag. However, I see no need to stop there. This is a house that was built upon corruption, and so I would gladly welcome the day when the American flag, and all state flags, are less than a memory, as well as all monuments, including the Statue of liberty. These flags and monuments all represent an evil lie. It was not freedom that was delivered here, but only war, death, and destruction. And we see this Imperialist lust for power and control continues today throughout the Middle East. My father fought in World War II. When he came home he was still a second class citizen unable to use a public restroom if there were no "colored" facilities available. For this outrage alone, I have nothing but contempt for those who glorify an evil legacy. I am a Vietnam Era Veteran, and no one has rolled out the red carpet for me either.

Often people will counter with the notion that although the United States has committed evil acts, it is the lesser of many evils that exist in this world. That is because they have been influenced by all those John Wayne movies that portrayed a black and white world of good guys and bad guys. But often we find that all of the players are "The Bad Guys", and the good guys are all sitting on the sidelines waiting to see who wins, and who will become their new master. White America must accept that this was a bad idea from the very beginning, and from that acceptance there must be born a new Constitution, and a new nation. Otherwise, there will never be peace in this Earth.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 02, 2017:

Thanks, Eric. I suppose that because flags often embody such powerful symbolism, they're probably objects of contention in many places in the world.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 02, 2017:

Excellent. I reckon that some things are "should" and not yet does. In our little corner of the world we are more concerned with the South Vietnamese flag. Seemingly totally different yet in fact the same, without the race card.

I wonder, if our civil war was not about race at all then how can the flag now suggest anything about race?

Thanks Ron

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