AUTHOR’S NOTE: The material covered in this piece may offend some readers. This material is presented strictly for academic purposes.
Studying history requires overcoming both preconceived notions and unexpected challenges, such as those faced when preservation meets with political realities. This became of particular interest to me after reading Michele V. Cloonan’s The Paradox of Preservation (Library Trends, Summer 2007), in which Cloonan puts forth the argument of how preservation itself leads the inevitable question of whether something can, or even should, be preserved for posterity. Cloonan’s paradoxical examples included such things as a wooly mammoth perfectly preserved in ice, later thawed for research purposes (which, in fact, destroyed the mammoth itself), and the preservation of various artifacts from the Auschwitz concentration camp (a facility intentionally designed for rapid dismantlement). While these are excellent examples paradoxical argument, such academic questions are often lost on Americans because of our cultural interests. Yet there is one area where this paradox is alive and well, affecting not just the American historical community, but everyday citizens.
One need only look to Civil War artifacts and historical records to see this paradox in action. Perhaps the most obvious example of this paradox lie in the single more controversial remnant of the failed Confederate States of America. Namely, the Confederate Battle Flag.
This flag, adopted only as an element in a revised banner replacing the “Stars & Bars,” is a symbol which continues to evoke passionate responses both for and against its display, and stories of its use as a tool of hate speech serves to further complicate its preservation value. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers in the Civil Rights movement garnered the attention and sympathy of Americans, this flag took on a particularly onerous symbolism in the South. Despite the fact this flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate Congress as the national banner, several southern states began to incorporate it into their own state flags. In the cases of Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee, elements of the flag were used so as to avoid drawing the ire of both federal officials and powerful northern business interests. Only Mississippi retains this flag in its entirety as an element in its state flag.
Here in Georgia, debate rages as to whether the Battle Flag should even be allowed on specially-issued license plates. Advocates of the plates continuously pose the arguments of the historical significance of the flag, using such slogans as “Heritage, Not Hate.” They also claim legal precedent as Georgia incorporated this flag, in its entirety, as part of the state’s official banner until it was retired in 2003 in favor of a modified version based on the less-offensive “Stars & Bars.” Opponents of the use of the flag on an official state document (which license plates are considered) contend that such use is tantamount to a de facto endorsement of hate speech by the state government. For African-Americans, this flag is emblematic of prejudice and bigotry, the symbol of fear and hate, as the flag became co-opted by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups as recruitment tool to this very day. These concerns have created a legal and bureaucratic headache for the state, which must balance the desires of southern heritage activists against the fears of civil rights activists and business interests which stand to lose from being associated with this matter by virtue of their Georgia dealings.
Adding to this paradox is the decision by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to fly oversized Battle Flags over prominent highways across the southeastern United States. My adopted home region of Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida once featured what was called “The World’s Largest Confederate Battle Flag” flying on a pole near the intersection of Interstates 4 & 75 in eastern Hillsborough County, later replaced by the final official Confederate Flag, a.k.a. the “Blood Stained Banner.” Other such flags have either been flown, or are flying in areas such as northern Florida near Lake City, and in Virginia near Fredericksburg, both within sight of major interstate highways. Again, advocates argue the flag itself is a statement of heritage while opponents call it hate speech and slap to the face of civil rights achievements.
During my internship, and before as Editor of my campus newspaper, one of the great challenges I encountered, and continue to face, has been to balance the desire to preserve and present this sort of history against the political concerns of the community. Deciding how to best present this flag in a purely academic manner remains an enormous challenge. Should students and the public be educated on the flag and Its history using the actual flag, or should it be mentioned merely as an anecdote out of concern over racial and political sensitivity? As with any preservation paradox, there is no easy answer.
From a purely academic standpoint, an argument for preservation of the Confederate Battle Flag can be presented and should, in the name of academic integrity, be heard by decision makers as a matter of historic objectivity. While this particular paradox can never been
fully resolved due to the passions involved, a means of effectively mitigating its effects could be to present this flag as part of a broader visual history of the flags of the Civil War, using a compare-and-contrast approach with the Stars & Bars, as well as the Stars and Stripes, as a point of reference.
The paradoxical challenge remains how to balance the educational value of preserving this flag versus the concerns of the public over its symbolism. Unlike Auschwitz, the Battle Flag presents unique challenges. First, it is portable and readily available, making it possible for anyone with a political agenda to use it in a manner to promote anti-government rhetoric or hate speech. Second, it remains a de facto symbol of rebellion against what many regard as an ever-hegemonic federal government. Third, it has been featured by many groups with ties to both hate speech, racial violence and domestic terrorism. Finally, and perhaps most challenging of all, it has been at the core of myriad lawsuits regarding its presentation and use at public schools, as well as museums and historic sites which are either owned by governments, or derive a critical portion of their funding from government appropriations.
We would be failing our posterity to suppress education of this flag’s existence, as well as its symbolism, strictly in the name of political correctness and social sensitivities. History is not always pretty, and this flag certainly represents the darkest aspects of our national heritage. Still, it is a heritage which should be shown in its entirely if we are to truly learn and move forward.