I’ve always loathed the Confederate flag. It conjures the most hateful dimensions of our past: slavery, segregation, and white supremacy.
But that doesn’t mean we should bar the Stars and Bars from our license plates.
I’m talking about the controversy in Texas, where state officials refused to print a so-called “specialty plate” bearing the Confederate flag. That led to a challenge by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the sponsors of the flag plate, who took the case all the way up the Supreme Court.
Last Monday, lawyers for the SCV told the Court that Texas was discriminating against them. I’m afraid they’re right. And I don’t want to give them the satisfaction—and the publicity—that comes with playing an oppressed minority.
For most of our history, after all, the Confederate flag has symbolized the oppression of another minority—namely, African-Americans. Its defenders will tell you that it’s just an emblem of their “heritage,” not of racism. But history says otherwise.
Adopted shortly after the Civil War began, the first Confederate flag consisted of red and white stripes plus a ring of white stars—one for each state—emblazoned on a blue background. But civilians said that was too similar to the United States flag, while generals worried that soldiers would be unable to recognize it. At Bull Run, the first major battle of the war, at least one Confederate regiment mistakenly fired on another.
So the Confederacy adopted the so-called Southern Cross, which was shifted on its axis to form an “X” after critics—including one self-described “southerner of Jewish persuasion”—charged that an upright cross was a religious symbol rather than a national one. Adopted in 1863, the icon appeared on a background of pure white.
Why white? You can already guess the answer. “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race,” a Georgia newspaper explained. “A white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.”
In the postwar Reconstruction era, the Southern Cross was also adopted by white vigilante groups who terrorized African-Americans. And nobody—black or white—could miss the meaning of the symbol. As one speaker told a reunion of Confederate veterans in 1930, they had “wrested Dixeland from the ‘Tragic Era’ of Reconstruction Rule . . . and established once and for all on southern soil the incontrovertible doctrine of ‘White Supremacy.’”
After World War Two, that doctrine came under fire from the civil rights movement. So Southern whites rallied once again under the Stars and Bars, which embodied their “massive resistance” to racial integration and equality. “The Confederate flag is coming to mean something to everybody now,” a Georgia state legislator explained in 1951. “It is becoming the symbol of the white race and the cause of the white people. The Confederate flag means segregation.”
That was probably the only premise on which white supremacists and African-Americans could agree. The following year, a black newspaper editorialized against the profusion of Confederate flags around the country. “Ask yourself what sinister forces are behind this sudden craze to make the whole nation rebel conscious,” the Afro-American urged. “The Confederate flag stands for slavery and human degradation,” the paper declared, as well as for “white supremacy.”
Over the next decade, three southern states—Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina—would incorporate the Stars and Bars into their state flags. Meanwhile, revived vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the “respectable” segregationists of the White Citizens Councils integrated the Confederate flag into their uniforms, parades, and literature.
So did segregated schools and colleges like the University of Mississippi, where the home economics department sewed a gigantic Confederate flag for display at football games. When white mobs gathered to block the African-American student James Meredith from attending “Ole Miss” in 1962, they lowered the United States flag from the campus flag pole and replaced it with the Stars and Bars.
And the year after that, as police officers in Birmingham attacked black protesters with dogs and fire hoses, the South’s most notorious law enforcement figure invoked the the same symbol in his quest to preserve segregation. “Raise the Confederate flag as did our forefathers and tell [blacks], ‘You shall not pass,’” urged Eugene “Bull” Connor.
Civil rights organizations continued to blast the Stars and Bars over the next three decades, when most public institutions dropped or downplayed the symbol. But that gave renewed energy to groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which established a “Heritage Committee” to block “cultural genocide” against white Southerners and their flag. Replying to the oft-heard charge that the Confederate flag was as offensive as a swastika, one SCV member replied that efforts to remove the symbol echoed anti-Semitic purges in Nazi Germany.
You don’t have to buy this absurd analogy—and I certainly don’t—to see how anti-flag campaigns feed the paranoia and popularity of these Confederate apologists. Refusing to print their symbol on a license plate is almost certainly unconstitutional, as Monday’s Supreme Court hearing confirmed. But it’s also unwise, playing into the hands of people who are trying to whitewash the worst aspects of our past.
Instead of barring the Stars and Bars, then, Texans should propose a new license-plate icon to challenge it. They could borrow a 1960s civil-rights symbol, which showed black and white hands clasped across a Confederate flag. Or they could adapt the logo of NuSouth, a minority-owned South Carolina clothing company that reproduced the Stars and Bars in the colors of African liberation: green, black, and red.
That would send a clear message about racial justice, without violating our equally sacred commitment to free speech. It would also help defang the SCV, which doesn’t deserve all the attention that Texas’ ill-advised decision has showered upon it. The best response to bad speech isn’t censorship; it’s more speech. And the best response to whitewashed history is an open debate about our past. That’s another war that our latter-day Confederates will never win.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” which was published this month by Princeton University Press.