On January 6, 2021, I was in quarantine, after testing positive for COVID-19. I read and watched TV to pass the time. After flipping to CNN, I began to see early reports of the insurrection at the Capitol. I saw the events of this fateful day unfold in real time. An overwhelmingly White mob of Donald Trump supporters was storming the Capitol, viciously attacking police along the way. My first thought was if this had been a group of Black rioters terrorizing the seat of American democracy, many of them would have been shot dead on the spot. I was shocked and saddened by what I saw, but not surprised. Trump clearly incited this insurrection while peddling the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. He started his diabolical disinformation campaign even before the election. It senselessly resulted in 5 fatalities, 140 injuries to law enforcement, and scores of traumatized officials.
To me, one of the more sickening sights of this day was that of Kevin Seefried carrying a large Confederate flag into the Capitol. This had never been done before, but it felt like déjà vu to me. Déjà vu is a French term which literally means “already seen.” It is the uncanny sensation that one has already experienced the present situation. When déjà vu is discussed, it is usually in reference to an individual. However, I contend that, on January 6th, America experienced a déjà vu moment. We had been here before!
Ironically, what we now know as the Confederate flag was never the official battle flag of the Confederacy. Rather, it was best known as the battle flag of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Northern Virginia Army unit. In fact, the Confederacy went through several different flags during the Civil War, none of which was the current Confederate flag. Shortly after the Civil War, the Confederate flag was largely a forgotten relic, that is, until the “Lost Cause” myth began to take root in the late 1800’s. The Lost Cause is the false, romanticized narrative that the Confederates were heroic and their cause was just. The Lost Cause was not only a systematic effort to whitewash the ugliness of slavery, but also a backlash to Black progress seen during the Reconstruction Era. By 1915, the Lost Cause had seeped into the mainstream of American thought. This can be readily seen in “Birth of a Nation,” the first Hollywood blockbuster in which the Confederate flag was prominently featured. During this period, the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan was formed and began using the flag as its emblem.
In the middle of the 20th Century, the battle flag experienced another resurgence, and this wasn’t by accident. This time, the flag exploded into prominence in reaction to the African-American struggle for civil rights. As advances were made in this struggle, the flag became more visible. Segregationist mobs, White Citizen Councils, Southern Democrats (or Dixiecrats), and other Jim Crow proponents, joined the Klan in displaying the flag. In 1956, Georgia adopted a new state flag that prominently featured the Confederate flag. In the early 1960’s, both Alabama and South Carolina began to fly the flag over their capitols. This was not done to honor fallen Confederate soldiers, but to enshrine White supremacy.
Fast forward to 2008. The nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, was elected to his first term. Many Americans were filled with unbridled optimism and believed that we had somehow entered into a “post-racial” America. They were wrong- dead wrong. White grievance politics and populism began to grow, as evidenced by the emergence of the Tea Party movement, in 2009. Confederate flags could often be seen at Tea Party rallies. On June 17, 2015, a despicable act of domestic terrorism was carried out by Dylann Roof, a White supremacist and neo-Nazi. He went into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina, where he shot and killed 9 worshipers, all of whom were Black. Roof had previously displayed the Confederate flag on his website, and he left a racist manifesto. Likewise, the Confederate flag was on full display at the Unite the Right Rally which occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017. Moreover, for the past 5 years, Confederate flags have become a welcomed staple at MAGA rallies.
Now, we have come full circle to that dark day on January 6th in which many Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. To be sure, the insurrectionist carrying the Confederate flag in that infamous photo was not alone. Several far-right and/or White supremacist groups were present, and their members defiantly displayed the Confederate flag. It was surreal to see Confederate flags displayed alongside American flags, “Jesus Saves” banners, and Trump paraphernalia. As a Christian and American, I find the juxtaposition of these things on the steps of the Capitol particularly sickening!
Some say the Confederate flag is a symbol of “states’ rights. ”I say it was, in fact, about states’ rights- specifically the right of White men in Confederate States to own slaves. Some say the Confederate flag is a symbol of “southern pride,” or, that it’s about “heritage, not hate.” I say we need to be clear about whose heritage we’re addressing. Simply put, it is the heritage of southern men who were invested in maintaining their White power over Black bodies. The fact that a number of racist groups have adopted the Confederate flag over the years indicates it only has one true heritage: racial hatred.
To those who say the Confederate flag represents rebellion against the government, I say it is a symbol of rebellion against a just, racially inclusive society. The Confederate flag is a flag that belongs to the losing side of the bloodiest war in American history. It belongs to traitors! Many African-Americans, including myself, are traumatized whenever they see someone publicly displaying the Confederate flag. Nevertheless, it keeps on getting recycled! Déjà vu all over again! This is evidence that racism is alive and well in America. Just like the symbol of the cross is forever linked to the crucifixion of Christ, the Confederate flag will always be linked to racial oppression, terror, and White supremacy. The only suitable place for the Confederate flag is in a museum!
By Joel A. Bowman, Sr.