The Confederate Flag Controversy

An Interview with David Goldfield

Amer­i­can Stud­ies Blog: Pro­fes­sor Gold­field, in 2013 you pub­lished a wide­ly acclaimed book, Still Fight­ing the Civ­il War: The Amer­i­can South and South­ern His­to­ry. Even the inter­na­tion­al press is cur­rent­ly fol­low­ing the debate about the Con­fed­er­ate flag which flared up after the shoot­ing of nine black parish­ioners at a his­toric church in Charleston, S.C. Are South­ern­ers still fight­ing the Civ­il War, and why is the Con­fed­er­ate flag such a pow­er­ful symbol?

David Gold­field: Not as much as we used to. Many things have been set­tled in the South over the last fifty years (but not the pre­vi­ous 100 years): fore­most the rise of African Amer­i­cans to the sta­tus of full cit­i­zens as a result of the end of legal racial seg­re­ga­tion and restora­tion of vot­ing rights. African Amer­i­cans hold 1500 polit­i­cal offices through­out the South now, and their eco­nom­ic gains have expand­ed the black mid­dle class.

Equal­ly impor­tant, the South has become much more cos­mopoli­tan over the past 50 years. Between 1990 and 2010 (our last cen­sus), more than 10,000,000 North­ern­ers have migrat­ed into the South­east, and for most of them the Civ­il War is just anoth­er event in Amer­i­can His­to­ry – impor­tant to be sure, but not some­thing to dwell upon. At the same time, and for the first time since the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, the South has received tens of thou­sands of immi­grants from Latin Amer­i­ca, Asia, and East­ern Europe com­ing to take advan­tage of the rapid eco­nom­ic growth of the region as well as to escape dif­fi­cult con­di­tions in their for­mer homes. These new­com­ers in par­tic­u­lar have no con­nec­tion to and no stake in the Civ­il War.

Final­ly, the South has expe­ri­enced sig­nif­i­cant eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment. South Car­oli­na has a Vol­vo plant, a Miche­lin plant, and a BMW plant, for exam­ple. We also have numer­ous high-tech and finan­cial enter­pris­es. Char­lotte, for exam­ple, is the sec­ond largest bank­ing cen­ter in the U.S. A day after the trag­ic shoot­ing at the black church in Charleston, the South Car­oli­na Cham­ber of Com­merce called for the removal of the flag. I knew from that moment that the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag was doomed: If some­thing hurts the econ­o­my (nev­er mind the good moral rea­sons to remove the flag), then it’s gone. Wal­mart removed the flags from its inventory.

For all of these rea­sons, the pub­lic sym­bols of the Con­fed­er­ate States of Amer­i­ca are all the more dear to the dwin­dling num­ber of Con­fed­er­ate sym­pa­thiz­ers. Their ances­tors lost the war, they now have lost the bat­tle for white suprema­cy on most fronts, and the grow­ing cos­mopoli­tan and diverse nature of the met­ro­pol­i­tan South has left the rur­al and small town South (where most of these folks reside) as pret­ty much an after­thought. The flag is also cher­ished because it has become a sym­bol of defi­ance against the nation­al gov­ern­ment, and it has been used as such par­tic­u­lar­ly since the begin­ning of the Civ­il Rights move­ment in the late 1940s through the 1960s. That bat­tle flag did not appear on the Capi­tol dome in Colum­bia, S.C., until 1962, more than 100 years after the war began. Why? Because we were in the midst of the Civ­il Rights move­ment, and this was a flut­ter­ing cri de coeur against racial equal­i­ty and fed­er­al law.

ASB: We are see­ing week­ly if not dai­ly reports of police vio­lence against black cit­i­zens. In spite of the Civ­il Rights movement’s far reach­ing influ­ence, strong anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion leg­is­la­tion, and the fact that the coun­try elect­ed the first black Pres­i­dent twice: Is racism on the rise?

DG: No. As you know, the media cov­ers things these days like a car­pet. Noth­ing escapes pub­lic notice. And, in some ways, that’s good because it expos­es what we need to work on as a peo­ple and as a nation. But as a his­to­ri­an, I take the long view. There is no doubt that we have made sig­nif­i­cant racial progress over the past 50 years. The num­bers of black polit­i­cal offi­cials, the expan­sion of the black mid­dle class, the grow­ing tol­er­ance of inter­ra­cial mar­riage and rela­tion­ships, and, yes, the pres­ence of a black man in the White House. This last event would have been incon­ceiv­able 50 years ago. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma was not elect­ed only by black vot­ers, of course – he won the state of Iowa, for exam­ple. Black vot­ers in that state rep­re­sent less than 3% of the elec­torate. That to me says much more than these cur­rent events. But, as you know, progress in race rela­tions is rarely a straight line upward. We’re on a jour­ney, and occa­sion­al­ly, we have detours. But we’re much far­ther along on that jour­ney toward racial equal­i­ty now than we were 50 years ago.

ASB: How are the poten­tial pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates respond­ing to the debate on racism and inequal­i­ty? Do they see a need for reform?

DG: The G.O.P. can­di­dates are remain­ing rel­a­tive­ly qui­et on this. South Car­oli­na Sen­a­tor Lind­say Gra­ham had to say some­thing because the tragedy occurred in his state. Although he demurred on answer­ing the flag ques­tion imme­di­ate­ly after the church shoot­ing, when the Gov­er­nor and the Cham­ber of Com­merce came out for the flag’s removal, he got on board. The Repub­li­can Par­ty is not a racist par­ty, but some of their posi­tions do not res­onate well in the black com­mu­ni­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly with respect to the restric­tion of vot­ing rights. On the flag issue, though, I think most Repub­li­cans – even south­ern Repub­li­cans – are con­clud­ing that the flag needs to be in a muse­um. But it could be an issue next year: The first pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry in the South is in South Car­oli­na, and the Repub­li­can vot­ers who turn out there are quite conservative.

On the Demo­c­ra­t­ic side, Hillary Clin­ton called for the flag’s removal from the State House grounds in South Car­oli­na as far back as 2007. I haven’t heard the posi­tions of Bernie Sanders or Mar­tin O’Malley on the flag issue, but I’m cer­tain they would not dif­fer from Hillary’s point of view.

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David Gold­field is the Robert Lee Bai­ley Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at UNC Char­lotte and has writ­ten six­teen books on the his­to­ry of the Amer­i­can South, most recent­ly Amer­i­ca Aflame: How the Civ­il War Cre­at­ed a Nation (2011). Two of his books have been nom­i­nat­ed for the Pulitzer Prize in his­to­ry. He also serves as a con­sul­tant to muse­ums, the news media, and the U.S. Depart­ment of State on the social and polit­i­cal his­to­ry of the South.