by Borgna Brunner
Introduction to the Confederate Flag Controversy
There is a misperception that many of the of Southern states have flown some version of the Confederate flag without interruption since the Civil War. For the most part, the Southern states that raised the Confederate battle flag or incorporated it into their state flag did so in the early part of the 20th century or during the 1950s and 1960s, in a defiant stand against integration. Denmark Groover, the Georgia House floor leader who in 1956 sponsored the legislation to add the Southern Cross into the state flag, freely admitted as much. He maintained that he and many of Georgia's legislators at the time were staunch segregationists who had urged that the Confederate symbol be added to the flag as a protest against federal integration orders.
In 1894, Mississippi changed its flag from a depiction of a magnolia, the state flower, to one incorporating the Confederate battle flag. Lawsuits in recent years by the Mississippi NAACP have stagnated in the court system and black legislators in the Mississippi statehouse repeatedly but unsuccessfully introduced bills to remove the Confederate symbol from the flag. These legislators argued that not only is the Southern cross an emblem of racism, but that whatever one's views about the meaning of the flag, the fact that the flag has caused such controversy is in itself a reason for change—a state flag should be a symbol of unity, not divisiveness (36% of the population in Mississippi is black).
In May 2000 it was discovered that Mississippi's 1894 flag was never officially adopted. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove used the opportunity to form a commission to propose a new state flag design. On April 17, 2001, Mississipians voted in a special referendum to determine whether to replace the existing flag. They overwhelmingly voted to keep the old flag, making Mississippi the last state to still fly the Confederate cross. Following the shooting spree at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015 that left nine people dead, House Speaker Philip Gunn said the Confederate battle cross should be removed from the state's flag. "As a Christian, I believe our state?s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed," Gunn said. Photographs of Dylann Roof, the man charged with the shooting, posing with the flag were publicized after the tragedy, prompting widespread calls for the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy to be removed from public places and from store shelves. Major retailers, such as Sears and Walmart, said they would no longer sell the flags or items associated with it. Internet giants Amazon and eBay made similar pledges.
Waving the Confederate battle flag at University of Mississippi football games, a tradition since 1948, helped foster a reputation for the university as a bastion of white supremacy. In 1997 the university banned stick flags at sports events—because the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, Confederate flags themselves cannot be banned. The sticks to which they are attached, however, can be barred from stadiums as safety hazards. This has not prevented fans from wearing Confederate flags on their clothing, but it has reduced the display of the Southern Cross and sent a clear message about where the university stands on the issue.
"Ole Miss" reached the height of its notoriety in 1962, when protesters—many of whom waved Confederate battle flags—attempted to bar James Meredith from registering at the university because he was black.
The Arkansas state flag was approved in 1913. Its design incorporated references to its former possession by three countries (France, Spain, and the United States), the fact that Arkansas is the only state where diamonds have been discovered, and its admission into the United States as the twenty-fifth state.
In 1923, however, it was pointed out that the flag made no reference to Arkansas' role in the Confederacy. The following year a blue star was incorporated in the flag to represent Arkansas' Confederate heritage. But because the Confederate symbols do not dominate the flag to the exclusion of other aspects of the state's long history, the state flag has never been the object of controversy.
In 1956, Georgia adopted a new state flag that, like Mississippi's, incorporated the Confederate battle flag in its design. The flag, introduced two years after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), represented the Georgia legislature's protest against forced integration. Although some claim the new flag was adopted in anticipation of the Confederate Centennial in the 1960s, this argument was largely dismissed as disingenuous. In fact, the very sponsor of 1956 flag, former Georgia House floor speaker Denmark Groover, openly admitted forty-five years later that defiance of segregation was the motivating force behind the new flag, not historical sentiment.
In 1993, Gov. Zell Miller attempted and failed to convince the Georgia legislature to drop the Confederate symbol from the flag. Public opinion in Georgia was also overwhelmingly against adopting a new flag. A major protest against the flag by sources outside Georgia was mounted before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and resulted in keeping the Georgia state flag as well as the Confederate battle flag away from the games. In 2000, the Georgia chapter of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/ PUSH coalition announced plans to organize an economic boycott of the state in an effort to pressure the Georgia legislature to change the flag.
With little warning and debate, the Georgia legislature suddenly and swiftly tackled the contentious flag issue in January 2001. On Jan. 30, 2001, Gov. Roy Barnes signed a bill that replaced the divisive flag with a new one, which was unfurled over the statehouse the next day. The new flag featured the Georgia state seal on a blue background and relegated a miniature version of the 1956 flag to the bottom of the flag, under a banner entitled "Georgia's History." In addition to the tiny representation of the 1956 flag were four other flags that played a part of Georgia's history: the 1777 U.S. flag, the pre-1879 Georgia flag, the pre-1956 state flag, and the U.S. flag.
The original sponsor of the 1956 flag, Denmark Groover, became an outspoken advocate for removing the flag he had helped to raise 45 years previously. Before his death in 2001, he announced, "I've learned in all my years—and it took a while to learn it—that I have to live with all my neighbors. It's time to end this cauldron of discord that adversely affects our lives and the future of our children and grandchildren."
But this was not the end of Georgia's flag controversy. So-called flaggers were furious that Barnes had summarily retired the Southern Cross, and in Nov. 2002, Barnes lost his reelection bid to a little-known Republican, Sonny Perdue. The new governor, whose election campaign had centered on the flag issue, promised a series of referendums. The first, proposed for March 2004, would ask voters to approve or reject the 2001 Barnes flag. If the 2001 flag was rejected, there would be a second referendum in July 2004, which would ask voters to choose between the pre-1956 flag, based on the Stars and Bars, and the post-1956 flag, which featured the Southern Cross.
But in a rebuff to Perdue, Georgia's more liberal lawmakers fought against holding the second referendum that gave voters the opportunity to resurrect the 1956-2001 flag with the prominent Southern Cross and segregationist history. Civil rights groups had also threatened a statewide economic boycott if the second referendum was approved. In April 2003, Georgia's legislators decided on a single referendum and a brand new flag to be voted on. The legislature voted to abandon the 2001 Barnes flag altogether—while serving a valiant purpose in replacing the segregationist flag, it pleased few people aesthetically, and its complexity made it difficult for school children to draw. The legislature voted in a brand new flag, Georgia's third in two years. The new flag resembles the pre-1956 flag, featuring the "Stars and Bars." The "Star and Bars," although a symbol of the Confederacy, lacks the segregationist overtones of the Southern Cross. In March 2004, Georgians voted in a single referendum, one that decided between the new 2003 flag and the 2001 flag adopted during Barnes's tenure. The verdict: Georgians voted three to one to retain the 2003 flag.
In 1963, at the peak of Alabama's conflict with the federal government over segregation, Gov. George Wallace raised the Confederate battle flag over the Alabama statehouse to protest a visit by then-attorney general Robert F. Kennedy. The flag was lowered in 1992 during a renovation of the statehouse. What was meant to be only a temporary removal became a permanent one in 1993 after a successful lawsuit by four black state legislators. The court ruled that the flag violated a 19th-century state law that permitted only the national and state flag to appear on top of the statehouse. Gov. Guy Hunt, determined to raise the battle flag once again, appealed the decision. The governor, however, was booted from office shortly thereafter, convicted of misappropriating funds.
In one of his first acts in office, the new governor, Jim Folsom, announced that he had no intention of going through with Hunt's appeal. The battle flag was relocated to a nearby Confederate monument.
The official Alabama state flag, adopted in 1895, features a red St. Andrew's cross on a white field. While the flag is reminiscent of the Confederacy, it has sparked little controversy.
Like the Alabama state flag, the Florida state flag includes a red St. Andrew's cross (as well as other symbols of Florida). Adopted in 1900, it too has never stirred controversy—nor did the Confederate flag that flew over the Florida capitol building between 1978 and 2001. In Feb. 2001, renovations required the removal of the four flags flying above the capitol. The flags, each representing a part of Florida's history, included Spanish, French, and British flags as well as the Confederate "stainless banner," the second national flag of the Confederacy. At the request of Governor Jeb Bush, none of the flags was again raised above the capitol. A spokesperson for Governor Bush commented that, "the governor believes that most Floridians would agree that the symbols of Florida's past should not be displayed in a manner that may divide Floridians today."
In 1962 the Confederate battle flag was placed on top of the South Carolina statehouse by vote of the all-white legislature. When other Southern states removed the flag from their statehouses, South Carolina refused to follow suit. This prompted the NAACP to organize a national economic boycott against South Carolina's $14 billion-a-year tourism industry, and since the summer of 1999, more than 100 conventions and business organizations have participated in the boycott. The boycott is considered one of the largest since the 1970s. The NAACP's president, Kweisi Mfume, said of the boycott, "this is a trigger you don't want to pull until all else has failed. In the case of South Carolina, after 38 years of negotiating even the NAACP has a limit to its patience."
Inflammatory remarks by state senator Arthur Ravenel made national headlines in Jan. 2000 when he defended the flying of the Southern Cross, referring to the NAACP as the "the National Association of Retarded People." He then apologized to "retarded people" for associating them with the NAACP. At the time of the the February Republican presidential primary, party differences on the issue were thrown in sharp relief: the Republican contenders declined to take a stand except to say that the issue was a state matter; the Democrats were outspokenly against the flag remaining.
The South Carolina state legislature eventually passed a bill to remove the flag. The bill specified that a more traditional version of the battle flag (square shaped as opposed to the rectangular flag now flying above the statehouse) would be flown in front of the Capitol next to a monument honoring fallen Confederate soldiers and on July 1, the flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse. The bill has not appeased everyone, however: the NAACP has not called off its boycott because they feel that the flag's new position on the Capitol lawn is still too prominent.
In 2001, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) also took action against South Carolina and Mississippi over the display of the Confederate battle flag, banning the states from hosting post-season games at "pre-determined sites." The term "pre-determined sites," however, created a loophole allows some post-season games to be played in the states. The NCAA expanded the ban in 2004 to include college football bowl games.
Shortly after the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley called on the state legislature to immediately begin the process to remove the flag from the statehouse. The Senate and House voted to remove the flag, and on July 9 Gov. Haley signed the bill. The Confederate battle flag was removed from the statehouse grounds on July 10. It will be relocated to the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.