Rebel Flags and Locust Plagues

never surrender t shirtI saw another Rebel flag tee shirt the other day.

Such “Southern Heritage” apparel reminds me of my old college history professor. “A lot of white Southerners,” said he, a Louisianan, “still have a loser’s complex from the Civil War.”

The flag shirt was on a white teenager. He was gabbing with a buddy; based on their accents, I suspect they are sons of the South.

“Never Surrender” and “Protect Your Heritage” were printed on the shirt below a cluster of four flags that flew over the Confederacy in 1861-1865.

“Never surrender?” The kid’s Rebel heroes gave up unconditionally in 1865.

“Heritage?” The Confederates bolted the Union in 1860-1861 and provoked America ‘s bloodiest war because they feared President Abraham Lincoln and his Northern “Black Republican” party would make them give up slavery.

I wonder if the teen is a fan of Alexander H. Stephens, the Confederate vice president. Soon after he took office, Stephens opined that the Declaration of Independence was flat wrong about all men being created equal.

Said Stephens: “Our new Government is founded exactly upon the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

Stephens also claimed that that the Confederate States of America was “the first Government ever instituted upon principles in strict conformity to nature and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society.”

Hence, according to Stephens, God was cool with white folks enslaving black folks. Throughout the Confederacy, white men of the cloth were wont to preach that slavery was heaven ordained.

Anyway, I imagine the national sesquicentennial observance of the Civil War is boosting the sale of “Southern Heritage” stuff, from caps and shirts to Rebel flag license plates and bumper stickers.

red flag truckConfederate banners are flapping from flagpoles all over Dixie and even in border states like Kentucky , where I was born, reared and still live.

At the same time, I’m pretty sure another reason for the in-your-face Rebel revanchism is because we have an African American president.

“The fetishism surrounding the Confederate battle flag is akin to periodic locust infestation,” said John Hennen, a Morehead, Ky. , State University historian and author. “The worship of this icon to treason and white supremacy will lie dormant for a while and then emerge with a vengeance whenever willfully ignorant whites — not limited to the old slave state South, by the way — sense that minorities are stepping out of line.”

Indeed, after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan hoisted the Confederate banner as they beat, chased away and murdered newly-freed slaves. (The current Klan is partial to the Rebel flag, too.)

In the 1960s, Klan members and like-minded Southern whites waved the Confederate flag in fierce — and often violent – opposition to federal laws aimed at ending years of Jim Crow segregation and race discrimination.

Of course, white people of the “Southern heritage” persuasion insist that their ancestors’ Confederacy was all about “states’ rights” and not the South’s peculiar institution. By “states’ rights,” the Confederates meant Yankee Republican Washington had no right to ban bondage in the slave states or even to stop slavery’s spread into the territories.

Berry CraigHennen added that after Reconstruction — when the Jim Crow era started — “there was a conscious effort by white Southerners to deny that the Civil War had anything to do with slavery. Oh, no, they said they fought in defense of local sovereignty.”

Hennen said “local sovereignty” in the antebellum South meant preserving slavery and white supremacy. “The contemporary ‘never surrender’ and ‘heritage’ tee-shirt cannot be separated from that legacy.”

Berry Craig

Published by the LA Progressive on July 20, 2011
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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 33 years and their 20-year-old son.