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.

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.