The nation watched in horror as a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, swarming police officers and vandalizing a federal building. Amid the chaos and sea of American flags and flags for President Donald Trump appeared an emblem that has long been associated with white supremacy – the Confederate battle flag.
Having that emblem hoisted inside the Capitol during a riot that sought to undermine the democratic process reinforced many people’s belief that the Confederate flag and those that brandish it like a firearm are committed only to an American democracy that prioritizes white supremacy. The act brings into focus the legacy and complex history of the flag, which long ago represented Confederate states in the South that went to war with Northern states in the Civil War.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said rioters carrying the flag Wednesday sent a clear message.
“It’s hard for Donald Trump and his kind to pretend that they don’t see race or that they’re not racist when the symbol of the people you have invited here is the Confederate battle flag or the Trump 2020 flag,” he said. “For a lot of us, they’re synonymous.”
The Confederate flag has had several different designs throughout its history.
The first Confederate flag, called Stars and Bars, was intentionally designed to resemble the American flag after the secession of Southern states in 1861. But the resemblance was so similar that during the Civil War, it caused confusion on the battlefield. After one Confederate regiment fired on another, possibly because of the confusion between the flags, it was redesigned. The battle flag was first distributed to Confederate troops in November 1861 and it’s the version commonly seen today.
“I’m pretty convinced that from the end of the Civil War well up into the 1930s, you wouldn’t see the Confederate flag flown the way it is today,” said Gaines Foster, a Louisiana State University history professor.
In the 1940s, the Confederate battle flag became entangled in American culture as less of a symbol of a lost war and more of a romanticized emblem of a lost Southern way of life. That’s when the States’ Rights Democratic Party, a political party committed to maintaining racial segregation, adopted the Confederate battle flag as its party flag.
“It’s really at that point, the battle flag becomes the popular item that it does,” Foster said. “It becomes Confederate flag bikinis; Confederate flag flip-flops. But it also becomes the banner used by the KKK, White Citizens’ Councils and by other segregation mobs throughout the South.”
As the fight for racial equality raged during the Civil Rights era, Southern states began to display the Confederate flag. Georgia put the Confederate symbol on its state flag in the late 1950s. South Carolina and Alabama began to fly the flag over their capital in the 1960s.
“In the midst of the civil rights movement, it’s identified with a defiant white supremacy,” Foster said. “And so the flag as a symbol of racism within American culture, I think is absolutely cemented at that point.”
In recent years, many Confederate statues and symbols publicly displayed across the country have been removed in the face of more recent protests and impassioned demands for racial equality. In 2015, after supremacist Dylann Roof shot nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley removed the Confederate flag from State capitol grounds. A flurry of removals of Confederate flags or revisions of state flags bearing Confederate imagery followed, with Mississippi voting in June to retire its state flag and design a new one.
Laura Edwards, a history professor at Princeton University, says the flying of the Confederate flag now is a statement about revolution. “It’s a statement not only about revolution but a particular kind, which is in support of white supremacy,” she said.
Thompson called it “horrible” that the “terrorists” were waving the Confederate flag during the attack on the Capitol.
“That’s the flag of the Confederacy. That was the flag that this country fought a war over, and it was because of slavery,” Thompson said. “And here we have people who see that as a symbol for wanting their freedom back, which is a racist symbol.”
Contributing: Deborah Berry