Centennial: Southern Civil War Revisionism vs. the Civil Rights Movement

Centennial: Southern Civil War Revisionism vs. the Civil Rights Movement

On Thursday the South Carolina State Legislature voted to end display of the Battle Flag of the Army Northern Virginia (“Confederate Battle Flag“) on the State Capitol Grounds, and the flag came down on Friday. Defenders of the flag appeal to “Tradition” and “History,” but this statehouse flag “tradition” only dates from April 11, 1961, and its “history” is really in the Civil War Centennial (1961-1965), when symbols of the Confederacy were adopted and manipulated by white Southerners opposed to the era’s desegregation, the Civil Rights movement, and Federal efforts to guarantee racial equality in elections, education, employment opportunity, and residential choice. Chief among those symbols: the Battle Flag.

Laura McCarty of the Georgia Humanities Council explains this aspect of the Centennial:

“The anniversary coincided with the height of the civil rights movement in Georgia and the South. Some white Georgians used the commemoration to glorify the Confederacy, adopting its leaders, rhetoric, and symbols as a means for expressing resistance to civil rights ideals. While not all centennial efforts were driven by that agenda, the official commemorations upheld an idealized vision of antebellum plantation culture, celebrated Confederate military heroes, and omitted references to slavery as a cause for the war ….”

Southerners now in their fifties and sixties absorbed this symbolic system as children, and passed it on to their children and the children they educated and influenced. That’s the “heritage” the flag represents for them, not 150-year-old military gallantry but the ugly race politics of the 1960s.

The U.S. Civil War began on April 12, 1861 as cadets from The Citadel and Arsenal fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor. Did South Carolina secede over States Rights and Property Rights, as many Centennial publications and exhibits maintained? Certainly; the right for the state’s white people to own black people as chattel property. The “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina…” cited “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” and protestied that Northern states failed to “fulfill their constitutional obligations” to return fugitive slaves into bondage.

A century later, in April 1961, the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission met in Charleston. Mrs. Madaline A. Williams of the New Jersey Centennial Commission, a former teacher, public figure, and Newark NAACP board member, was denied accommodation at the whites-only Francis Marion Hotel, the meeting venue. That’s what the flag at the South Carolina Statehouse stood for when it was run up the flagpole that same day.


“What has S.C. learned since the Civil War centennial? Fifty Years Later,” Will Moredock, Charleston City Paper

“A Flag Hijacked by Modern Segregationists,” Lonn Taylor. Washington Spectator

“The Day the Flag Went Up,” Brett Bursey, SC Progressive Network

“’The true people of South Carolina’ deface Nikki Haley’s Facebook wall with racist rants after Confederate flag decision,” Scott Eric Kaufman, Salon

“SC raised Confederate flag in 1961 to insult nine black protesters — and took it down to honor nine slain,” Travis Gettys, Raw Story

“Rewriting Confederate History,” Julianne Malveaux, Los Angeles Sentinel

“Lowering the Battle Flag,” Amy Davidson, The New Yorker


“Confederate flag down at ‘most ideologically important’ place in U.S.: Disney World,” Justin Wm. Moyer, Washington Post

“Interpreting Slavery and Civil Rights at Fort Sumter National Monument,” John Tucker, Park History, 19 (4) 2002

“Origins of the Confederate ‘Lost Cause,'” Matthew Wills, JSTOR Daily

Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Proclamation 3382 – Civil War Centennial,” December 7, 1960. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. 



Shortlink: http://wp.me/p6sb6-lDP

Image by Mike Licht. Download a copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

Comments are welcome if they are on-topic, substantive, concise, and not boring or obscene. Comments may be edited for clarity and length

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2 Responses to “Centennial: Southern Civil War Revisionism vs. the Civil Rights Movement”

  1. Jeffrey Wright Says:

    Little American history can measure up to this “Racist Yardstick” being used on everything Confederate.

  2. Mike Licht Says:

    Sure, there’s plenty of bad public history out there. In this case, though, historical vision was intentionally distorted by the rosy glasses of Jim Crow until forced labor camps looked like elegant antebellum mansions. Corrective lenses are long overdue. Every secessionist state left the Union so its free citizens could own other human beings as property; during the Civil War Centennial of the 1960s many Southerners used symbols of secession to resist if not terrorize descendants of those once held in bondage.

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