Defenders of Confederate heritage who have made known their support of the Confederate Battle Flag often argue that the battle flag (in both its square version–Army of Northern Virginia–and its rectangular version–Army of Tennessee) was the soldiers’ flag, and that in honoring it one honors service and sacrifice. Some advocates go further, and claim that Confederate soldiers did not fight to defend slavery (in part because they claim so few Confederate soldiers owned slaves).
Those issues are open for discussion, of course, but let’s set them aside for the moment. Rather, let’s turn to the use of the Confederate flag by the Ku Klux Klan … and why that group uses it.
People have correctly pointed out that while the emergence of the second coming of the KKK nearly a century ago was spurred in part by the movie Birth of a Nation, Klansmen were often fond of flying the United States flag during the 1920s and 1930s. It is not until the 1950s and 1960s that the Confederate flag appeared as a major symbol of the KKK as well as other efforts to protest integration and civil rights (recall when the Confederate flag appeared on state flags and atop the dome of the South Carolina state house). Clearly, the argument goes, the KKK misappropriated that symbol … although one notes that Confederate heritage groups spend much more time attacking other critics of Confederate heritage as South-haters and the like than they do when it comes to this supposed misappropriation. Want proof? Check the blogs of the Virginia Flaggers and Flagger webmaster Connie Chastain, and share all those posts attacking this misappropriation. Go ahead … it won’t take you long.
Back already? Good. Then we can proceed.
Let’s recall what the KKK of the 1950s and 1960s advocated (and it still advocates today, as do its fellow organizations such as the League of the South). It opposed racial equality, integration, and civil rights. Some white supremacist organizations were willing to use violence to achieve those ends by attacking supporters of equality, integration, and civil rights.
Remind you of anyone? Why, yes … the original KKK comes to mind. Founded in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, and active during Reconstruction, it eventually gave way in the 1870s to other white supremacist organizations (see Susan Hathaway’s beloved Red Shirts of South Carolina, for example).
Now, tell me … who joined the Reconstruction KKK? Blacks? Nope, despite all the talk about tens of thousand of black Confederates, one struggles to find black Klansmen (watch the comments section light up with posts on this subject). White unionists? Try again. Former Confederate veterans? Well, yes … from the top (Nathan Bedford Forrest and John B. Gordon) throughout the ranks. What were these veterans fighting to achieve? The suppression of the Republican party; the overthrow of Republican regimes; resistance to black equality and black suffrage … in short, exactly the sorts of issues targeted by the KKK in the 1950s and the 1960s.
Not all Confederates supported the KKK or white supremacist violence. One didn’t see Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, or John Mosby in these groups. No one questions their Confederate credentials. But it is reasonable to assume that a fairly high percentage of Klansmen were Confederate veterans, including many men who were non-slaveholders prior to the war. These men definitely believed in white supremacy. Whatever their views about slavery as an institution, they were not wild about emancipation and its consequences, especially of those consequences included economic opportunity, political equality, and educational advancement for black people … just like the KKK of the 1950s and 1960s. The war for southern independence might have resulted in defeat, but the war for white supremacy, Redemption, and “home rule” persisted … with the goal of creating a social order with which the Klansmen of the 1950s and 1960s would have been happy.
So maybe, just maybe, the KKK of the 1950s and 1960s in adopting the Confederate Battle Flag as its symbol was in fact honoring the postwar service of those Confederate veterans who populated these postwar white supremacist terrorist groups, starting with the KKK’s Reconstruction namesake. In flying the soldiers’ flag, in short, they were honoring those veterans and their service on behalf of white supremacy, much as more recent “flagger” groups honor service and sacrifice as well.
It’s something to think about.