Growing up just south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I saw a fraternity at West Virginia University fly the Confederate banner. That flag appears less often now, except in white supremacist contexts. In 2019 a third of American adults who were asked whether it represents heritage or racism (or other, or don’t now) chose heritage. The percentage was higher among respondents who were older, white, or rural. How well does the “heritage” answer hold up?
The Confederate States of America based their flag of 1861 on that of the Union. To avoid confusion in the heat of battle, southern military units adopted their own distinctive flags. Most popular was the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. After the war, it was used on soldiers’ graves and at veterans’ events. The Kappa Alpha college fraternity in Virginia displayed Lee’s ANV banner regularly. By the early 1900s it became a popular symbol of the Confederacy and the South at intercollegiate football games.
The Ku Klux Klan began to raise the ANV battle flag in the 1930s and 1940s, especially after World War II. Dixiecrats, a segregationist splinter party of former Democrats, featured it in the presidential election of 1948. It came into its own in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Many white Americans of my generation were taught the Confederate flag represents heritage. The South has a long, rich, distinct cultural heritage. Its contributions to American literature, music, cuisine, and religion cross racial lines. To represent it with a relic from a few years of devastating warfare dishonors the many aspects of that heritage of which the South can be justly proud.
Image: Kappa Alpha Fraternity Raising the Confederate Flag, West Virginia University, 1967.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.