The Aiken Chronicles

The Confederate Battle Flag and the High Cost of Perpetual Secession (page 1)

Posted in Uncategorized by canarypapers on December 17, 2009

South Carolinians demonstrating at a 2000 flag rally in support of keeping the Confederate flag flying on the State House grounds.

Recently, Mullins McLeod, Democratic candidate for governor in South Carolina, took the politically courageous step of adding his voice to those who have been urging — for nearly 50 years now — that the Confederate battle flag be moved from the State House grounds to a museum:

The Confederate flag debate continues to hold our state back. We are not going to compete in a 21st century economy by prolonging 19th century arguments. It is time for us to send a clear and unambiguous signal to the rest of the country, and the entire world, that South Carolina is better than what people see on the news, and that we are ready to make progress. By agreeing to move past this old argument once and for all, we will be telling the world that South Carolina is ready to lead again.Mullins McLeod, November 2009


According some folk there is no argument — which, if you think about it, confirms just the opposite. One of our state’s most powerful politicians and staunchest flag supporters, GOP State Senator Glenn McConnell, had this to say about the matter:

We settled his issue years ago on a bipartisan and biracial basis, and we’re moving forward to tackle the real problems facing South Carolina. We need candidates concentrating on progress rather than press and in looking ahead rather than backwards. – S.C. Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, September 2009

Funny that McConnell should mention the word, “backwards,” considering his party’s tradition of working to turn the clock backwards in South Carolina. Funny that McConnell should mention the word, “backwards,” considering that nearly half of the biographical info on his legislature website involves his favorite past-time of looking backwards and re-battling that old war: Sons of Confederate Veterans, Secession Camp #4; Palmetto Battalion; 27th S.C. Volunteer Infantry and 7th Connecticut Volunteers; Civil War Preservation Trust; Marion Light Artillery and 1st Connecticut Light Artillery; Natl. Civil War Artillery Assn. (qualified in all positions, including gunner); Chm., Hunley Comm. Funny that McConnell should eschew the idea of looking backwards, having been elected in a state where living in the past is almost a prerequisite to holding political office.

Here in South Carolina, we’ve been going backwards for so long that some folk get uneasy when someone commences to make forward momentum. It’s one thing to talk about it; it’s another to actually get up out of your rocking chair and take a step forward. And to contemplate either while running for political office is an act of either supreme naïveté or rare integrity.

While South Carolina may not hold the monopoly on backward momentum, it is a fact that you can pick any spot in history and look backward or forward 50 years and find little difference in matters of ignorance, illiteracy and intolerance. Nor will you find much difference in the agenda of our elected officials. Whether by hook or crook or rote ignorance, the vote goes to those best-suited to stay put in that ol’ rocking chair. And the more furiously they can rock, the better.

"Thank God for Mississippi. It keeps South Carolina from being at the bottom of the list," (Photographer Cecil Williams' classic photograph from the Civil Rights era. Click on the photo to access purchasing info for Cecil William new book, "Freedom & Justice: Four Decades of the Civil Rights Struggle As Seen by a Black Photographer of the Deep South.")

To wit: One hundred years ago, we were the 2nd most illiterate state in the country. Fifty years later, we were still the 2nd most illiterate state in the country. Today, nearly fifty years later, we are still flirting with 2nd place, if graduation rates and testing scores are any indication.

Also fifty years ago — as if boast that we cherish our Jim Crow heritage as much as our substandard education system — our leaders decided to fly the universal symbol of white supremacy over the State House for one week to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the Civil War, only we never took it down.

Sure, we moved it to a different spot in 2000, but only after a 40-year battle; only after the NAACP protested by boycotting the state; only after hundreds of state leaders and citizens protested by embarking on a 120-mile march to the State House grounds in Columbia, where they were joined by 50,000 more — a protest that was undertaken and supported by mayors, state officials, college presidents, athletics coaches, and business, religious and civil rights leaders, plus citizens both ordinary and famous from across the state.

The pro-flaggers (see photo at top of page) met this forward momentum with a barrage of protests ranging from demonstrations to a new line of pro-flag bumper stickers. More than a few also protested by sending floods of angry emails, including a death threat against the mayor of Charleston. The tone of these protests should have served as indication enough that — despite arguments to the contrary — the Confederate battle flag symbolizes the same thing today as it did in 1961 when it was first planted on the State House. We moved it to a different spot, is all. And we called it a compromise.

Secession bumper sticker

Red, White and Brown

Most people think the flag controversy is a new invention, its racist connotations being a Yankee plot to erase Southern heritage. This simply isn’t true. As indicated by South Carolina’s own Civil War historian, Daniel Hollis, who was part of the Civil War Centennial Committee (CWCC) that conceived the idea to raise the flag April 11, 1961, there could be no denying that white supremacy was a vital aspect of this state’s political will in 1861, just as it was in 1961. And there can be no separating the banners from this history.

Integral to understanding this history is a knowledge of the centennial events surrounding that week in 1961, which were indeed, historic, with one Charleston newspaper deeming the events, “the second battle of Fort Sumter.” There was more than a grain of truth to this headline.

A national effort, the planning for the 1961-1965 Civil War centennial had been in the works for nearly 4 years — since 1957, when Congress created the national CWCC to oversee the planning of this event and to assist each state in setting up its own independent CWCC agency. Congress envisioned this as a shared effort between the North and the South, the stated goal being to develop historical interest in the Civil War and hopefully bolster tourism in the states. The unstated goal was to use the centennial as a vehicle to foster cooperation among the states during the civil rights struggle. What was Congress thinking?

The seemingly improbably answer was this: They were thinking of national security. Truth is, the civil rights struggle had been ongoing since the Civil War — much longer, actually. The struggle for equality under the law — for equality in education, housing and employment, for equal access to public places, for voting rights, for anti-lynching laws and other legal protection from intimidation, threats, violence — this was nothing new. Why did the federal government suddenly choose, after 100 years of ignoring racial inequality and violence, to frankly give a damn?

We can thank the Cold War. We can thank the U.S.S.R. for their propaganda campaign. We can thank the Russians for using segregation and lynching to make a sound case that America was a nation of raving hypocrites. As early as 1947, it had already come down to this: In the interest of national security — an issue that ricocheted from Russia to Africa to America and back — the U.S. had to find a way to neutralize the criticism coming at our country from all corners of the globe. The trick was to do this without sparking a second civil war. To this end, President Truman created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights (PCCR) in 1947, on the grounds that it is not only the right thing to do, but it is in the greatest interest of the United States to do so for foreign policy considerations,thus marking the first time in forever that the federal government actually chose to take a pro-active approach toward dismantling the institutions of discrimination, oppression and violence against blacks. The first report from the PCCR, released in 1947, called for federal laws for:

…strengthening of the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department, an anti-lynching law, abolition of the poll tax, statutes protecting the right to vote, integration of the military, denial of federal funds to institutions that discriminate and federal laws against discrimination and segregation in employment, interstate commerce, and public accommodations.

Within 1 year — and under the specific threat of troop shortages for the Korean War — Truman settled the military segregation controversy with a mere stroke of the pen. The rest of the PCCR’s aspirations would take a bit longer, with anti-lynching laws never being passed. Ten years after the PCCR was formed — and with little to show for the intervening Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 beyond token gestures of integration in the wake of much violence and bloodshed — Congress glommed onto the idea of creating yet another committee — the Civil War Civil War Centennial Commission (CWCC).

Even as the CWCC aspired to unite the country around this difficult cause, they were still loath to offend the South, the latter effort proving to be a minefield over the next 7 years. Early on, concessions were demanded and made, with some requiring not so much as a word. For instance, the all-white national CWCC apparently intuited that it would not be wise to commemorate the history of black soldiers in the Civil War, nor promote black participation in the centennial. Such efforts were all but non-existent during the centennial. Early on, the idea of commemorating John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was deep-sixed. And when the national CWCC executive director, Karl Betts was asked in 1958 if there were going to be a commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation, he replied:

We’re not emphasizing Emancipation. You see, there’s a bigger theme–the beginning of a new America. There was an entire regiment of Negroes about to be formed to serve in the Confederate Army just before the war ended. The story of the devotion and loyalty of Southern Negroes is one of the outstanding things of the Civil War. A lot of fine Negro people loved life as it was in the old South.

In Karl Betts, the South had a friend. In Karl Betts, the South could trust that their version of the Northern War of Aggression would take front and center stage. Given the times, the South needed a friend. After all, the South was suffering bad press for its position on segregation, which many were linking with the South’s earlier position on slavery. By 1961, the Southern states had been battling the federal government for nearly 15 years and — despite a formidable arsenal of political trickery, legal stonewalling, intimidation, mob violence and murder — they were losing.

Federal troops escorting African American students from Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957

On one side of this battle was the staunch Jim Crow faction — including nearly every politician in the South, wielding a lot of power in Washington. On the other side was the law of the land, as delivered in Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision. And, since no one in authority was bothering to enforce the law of the land, the work of demanding enforcement fell onto the shoulders of civil rights activists and “coloreds,” who were staging peaceful demonstrations, marches and sit-ins throughout the South — their efforts met with a barrage of fires, threats, beatings, lynchings, gunfire and bombs. In response — and for the first time since Reconstruction — federal troops were dispatched to the South to defend and protect blacks from their own country.

It would seem that, with America’s urgency to win the Cold War, the matter of segregation could have been settled with a few well-placed pen strokes and political harumphs. However, neither President Eisenhower or the U.S. Congress were showing any inclination toward getting their hands dirty in this fight. Here, history seemed to be repeating itself. Just as the federal government had mollycoddled the South before the Civil War, in the hope that these states would voluntarily baby-step their way out of slavery, the Southern states had been mollycoddled ever since the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision — again, in the vainglorious hope that the South would voluntarily baby-step away from segregation. Working in the South’s favor was the lack of a deadline, as the Supreme Court had only stipulated that desegregation proceed “with all deliberate speed.” Intended, perhaps, as an appeal to a rational, peaceable transition, this vague timeline was interpreted by some in the South as an invitation to balk and resist.

Just as their forebears had done, Southern leaders dug in their heels and stayed put in their rocking chairs, with some rocking more furiously than others. Here, it could hardly be called a coincidence that the list of 17 Jim Crow states where racial segregation was required by law in 1954, was identical to the 1864 list of slave states and territories, excepting Nebraska, which was not on the 1954 list.

By 1958, all but 7 states had surrendered at least token gestures toward desegregation. By the time of the 1961 kickoff to the Civil War centennial celebration, the number had been whittled down to three — Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina, with the latter being the last to desegregate, in 1963.

[Note: As was the case with all Southern states, true desegregation was still years away in South Carolina. County-by-county and school by school, the state officials put up a bitter front. In the county where I was educated, my school remained all-white until 1967, when two token blacks were introduced to my class. It was not until the 1969-70 school year that integration began in earnest — an event that prompted a mass exodus of whites to private schools — marking the beginning of a 4-year battle among the student populations in public schools. Racial slurs and verbal threats — which were the order of the day — routinely erupted into actual violence, spiked here and there with bomb threats and schoolyard race riots].

What was Congress Thinking?

By 1961, the folks in South Carolina had a good idea. They rightfully suspected that this Civil War Centennial was being used as a vehicle to unite the country around the inevitable demise of segregation. They wrongfully suspected that the commemoration was being used as an occasion to rub South Carolina’s nose in its history with slavery and its stance on segregation. South Carolina answered this perceived threat by using the centennial as a vehicle to rekindle old angers over federal meddling in slavery to fuel new angers over federal meddling in segregation.

Against this backdrop it’s no wonder that the spirit of the Civil War centennial devolved into a battle of wills between the South and the North — a battle that now encompassed the newly inaugurated Kennedy Administration, which seemed to be picking up where Lincoln left off.

But the dissension was there from the get-go, beginning in 1958. It started with the name. The Civil War Centennial Commission? The South begged to differ. They proposed a different name – a name that was, in their view, historically accurate — the War Between the States Centennial Commission. ” This was the first skirmish, and the South lost it. As a Georgia editorialist wrote in 1960:

There’s a bitter piece of news from Atlanta for many an unreconstructed Southerner: The “Civil War” is being used as the proper name for the late unpleasantness. — William D. Workman, from the Augusta Chronicle, August 3, 1960

As this same writer explained, the name “civil war,” was a term of “Yankee oppression” implying:

“… a conflict between elements of the same nation. The war of 1861-65 could not be so termed, because it was a war between two separate nations: the United States of America and the Confederate States of America. Therefore, to acknowledge the ‘civil war’ designation is to deny the sovereignty of the Confederacy.”

Clearly, the sovereignty of the Confederacy was not going to be settled through semantics. Most Southern states accepted the ‘Civil War’ nomenclature and began planning their centennial events without incident. Not so in South Carolina, Mississippi and Georgia, (again, by no coincidence the only three states that had yet to be forced into segregation). The CWCC agencies of these states outright refused to use the name, “Civil War Centennial Commission” for their state commissions. The South Carolina CWCC officials renamed their state commission the South Carolina Confederate War Centennial Commission, which neatly retained the CWCC monogram. Mississippi opted for the Mississippi Commission on the War Between the States, and Georgia countered with the wordier, Georgia Civil War Centennial Commission Commemorating the War Between the States.

It was in this same spirit that South Carolina arrived one year early to the centennial. The first CWCC ceremony in the nation, in fact, was held in Aiken, S.C.. The occasion was the unveiling of the Battle of Aiken statue in January 1960, which occurred, for no particular rhyme or reason, on the 99th anniversary of the first pre-Civil War skirmish in Charleston.

Matthew Brady photograph of the Confederate dead in the wake of the September 17, 1862 Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American combat history, with over 23,000 casualties. Both sides withdrew from sheer exhaustion, neither able to claim victory, as the battle ended in a tactical draw.

Confederacy Dead? Not in Edgefield!

Also early to the ball was the neighboring town of Edgefield, S.C. which, in late 1960, staged what can only be described as a preemptive commemoration. It was a festive celebration, to be sure, marking the 100th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union. Organized by the state CWCC officials, the event made clear that the intention of the national CWCC — to pay somber tribute to the centennial of this war, a war so singularly hellish in its magnitude that it claimed more lives than were lost in WWI, WWII and the Korean War combined — had been lost on South Carolina.

The Augusta Chronicle newspaper account of Edgefield’s event — exuberantly headlined, “Confederacy Dead? Not in Edgefield!” — opened with these words:

Here on the 100th anniversary of the event that breathed life into that dashing gray-clad image of chivalry and gallantry, the Confederacy lived, breathed and exulted in all the glory of its brief but illustrious history.

The account continued with quotes from the various speakers on the Edgefield town square. Mayor Thomkin, it was observed, “voiced the defiance that permeated the atmosphere,” when he delivered his speech to the town, saying of the Confederate battle flag:

“I wish the Stars and Bars could fly over the town square in Edgefield forever — and no other!”

A copy of the original Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union was on hand for the celebration, as was Former Lt. Gov. James Sheppard, who gave an impassioned speech on states’ rights and secession. According to the account, Sheppard concluded his speech by advising his audience that they, too, might soon “be faced with a choice of secession or acceptance of a philosophy foreign to their way of thinking,” with the Lt. Gov. noted as leaving little doubt as to what course he would advocate.

From this point, “lest the entire celebration be mistaken for a hotbed of rebellion,” the revelry turned to somberness, as the crowd joined together in prayer, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, with the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) stating their pledge of allegiance to the Confederate battle flag.

The balance of the day was consumed with touring various local points of historic interest, such as Oakley Park, the former home of Confederate Gen. Martin Witherspoon Gary, boasted as “the only Red Shirt shrine in the nation.” Here, the townsfolk paused to pay homage to the Red Shirts — those notorious mobs of white men who, 12 years after the Civil War, mounted guerrilla-style campaigns of terror and murder against black South Carolinians. The principle goal of the Red Shirts — to suppress and intimidate newly freed slaves from voting or holding political office — had changed little in the ensuing years. In the words of South Carolina’s own state Rep. John D. Long [spoken in the late 1940s], who would be one of the co-sponsors of the later 1962 resolution to fly the Confederate flag over the State House:

As for the Negro voting in my primary, we’ll fight him at the precinct meeting, we’ll fight him at the county convention, we’ll fight him at the enrollment books, and, by God, we’ll fight him at the polls if I have to bite the dust as did my ancestors.

Absent from the Edgefield festivities were any overt explanations as to what inspired the town to erect a “shrine” to the Red Shirts. (It was simply understood). Absent from the day’s festivities was anything to explain the relationship between commemorating the Civil War and glorifying this murderous Reconstruction-era mob — that is, if it were indeed true that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery and white supremacy. (It was simply understood).

This peculiar mix of fiction and romance with our state’s violent history — paired with the spirit of exultation and defiance that permeated the Edgefield air on that December day — fairly-well described the tone of the centennial events that were to transpire in South Carolina over the next 5 years.

Confederate battle flags were flown from every post, draped as bunting over podiums and tables, and carried by the the Ku Klux Klan, which became a fixture in parades and rallies throughout the state, their presence embraced in the fiery rhetoric of Southern politicians. Southern newspaper editors rallied to the cause, as well, stirring resentments over the obvious similarities between the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Talk of a second secession grew bolder, as some suggested this might be the only way to meet the aggression and meddling of the federal government in segregation, aka “states’ rights.” Old angers over the Lost Cause — which was not about slavery, mind you — fed into new angers over the fight to preserve the Southern way of life. At some point, the Cold War had even been brought into the fray, with the cause of integration being equated with communism.

All of this, and the actual 100th anniversary of the start to the Civil War — April 12, 1961 — had yet to arrive.


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4 Responses

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  1. r.j. said, on January 21, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    I find it rather sad that as a woman, you completely overlook the rape of well over 3,400 white women last year by black men, and similar numbers for years and years before that.

    • canarypapers said, on January 21, 2010 at 10:31 pm

      CANARYPAPERS EDITORIAL NOTE: Today’s comments arrive courtesy of the “white pride” website, Stormfront, whose forum member, “Wade Hampton,” urged fellow members to flood our mailbox. The Stormfront membership has risen to the cause. Ordinarily, we don’t censor comments, but when they arrive in the form of just two words — one beginning with the letter F, the other beginning with the letter N — we are compelled to delete them.

      Wade Hampton’s assessment of our post, which he titled, “Brainwashed SC Blogger worships negroes” reads as follows: “She attacks Southern history and then leaves out the atrocities committed by the Black race against SC Whites since 1865. Thousands of murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, terrorism and economic sanctions. Forced Federal (jewish) integration destroyed this once fine state. I could remember a segregated SC where it was safe to walk home from school and your neighbor was White and looked out for you. Jobs were plentiful if you wanted to work. You could leave doors unlocked, the Police were your friends, and there was civilization. Now Black drug gangs rule the countryside, factories and farms are vacant, we have high crime and unemployment, yet this woman is focused on the Confederate Battle Flag. Do me a favor and comment and reeducate her, flood the mailbox please.”

      It is apparent, from the blog stats, that these Confederate flag supporters did not bother to read our article. Perhaps they feel they already know everything, and therefore don’t need to read anything else. Or maybe they just want to vent their spleens. Whatever their impetus, I’ve approved some of their comments in the interest of free speech. The underlying reason for their support of the Confederate flag is plain enough in their comments, with their argument for heritage vs. hate every bit as eloquent as mine.


  2. Miria said, on January 21, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Man you are an idiot. The reason blacks were treated so harshly is because they were wild feral beats who rape, torture, rob, kill and mutilate as quickly as they breathe. Just like they do today. White women are 7 times more likely to be raped by blacks than they are white men, and black men are only 6% of the population. The smartest thing you could EVER do woman is to stay away from black men and quit crying your feel-good tears for them……… cry for the white victims of black evil and treachery, because they will certainly take all of your sympathy and then the next instant turn around and stab you in the back — this I promise you. Stop buying the brainwashing and OPEN, OPEN your eyes — they are not like you, and the only way to uphold the civilization you enjoy is to support your own people first and foremost.

  3. […] Here are the links: 1st, 2nd, […]

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