The other Stars and Stripes
As recent news has so shockingly shown the world, the American South has a flag problem. It is a problem that strikes at the very core of Southern identity—at the tensions between what the South has been and what it is becoming.
I grew up in the American Southern state of Georgia, which had the Confederate flag as a prominent part of its state flag until 2003. Government offices closed for Confederate Memorial Day (the last Monday in April), we watched Gone with the Wind as part of our history lessons at school, and we were taught to refer to the American Civil War as “the War of Northern Aggression.” The failed Confederate States of America were not a thing buried within the dustbin of history, but a living memory—an essential snapshot of a supposed pristine time in the South’s past when men were gentlemen, women were ladies, and the important values of family, regional pride, hard work, and hospitality were held in the highest esteem.
Of course the reality behind this vision of the South was not as pristine as many would have you believe. The Confederate States of America were built on the backs of millions of slaves, and the Civil War that crushed the Rebels also crushed the Southern economy and spirit. The Reconstruction that followed the Civil War did little to build a new South on a foundation other than slaves, and resentment and hostility between the newly freed blacks and the once slave-owning whites simmered under the surface.
By the 1950s, schools were segregated by race, blacks were intimidated or beaten for trying to vote, and racial hatred and fear was a daily reality. This was the era of the civil rights movement and the start of desegregation ushered in the Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education. It was also the era that saw the Confederate battle flag added to the Georgia state flag, as well as erected on state capitals across the South. That the two coincided was not a coincidence.
By the 1990s, however, the South was beginning to change. Industries and big companies from the North and from overseas had started moving South, planting headquarters and opening up thousands of new jobs. Southern politicians and businesspeople were out to prove that the South was now about innovation, high quality of life, and progressive values; Atlanta dubbed itself the “city too busy to hate.”
But not everyone in the South lives in this “new South.” There are still those who worry about what all the change means for those things that they hold dear about their homes: life on the land, sharing a sweet tea with a friend or stranger, and going to church on Sundays. And there are those who embody and emit racial hostility, including those like Dylann Roof who opened fire in an historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. This “old South” coexists with the “new South,” and the place of the Confederate flag is their modern battleground.