The Confederate flag still flew outside the South Carolina Statehouse as state senator Clementa Pinckneys funeral procession arrived.
  • Jim Watson/Getty
  • The Confederate flag still flew outside the South Carolina Statehouse as state senator Clementa Pinckney’s funeral procession arrived today.

During a discussion several years ago over renaming Confederate Memorial Hall at Vanderbilt University, a black professor made a shocking statement that might be correct: “The race problems that wrack America to this day are due largely to the fact that the Confederacy was not thoroughly destroyed, its leaders and soldiers executed and their lands given to the landless free slaves.”

This incendiary expression of descendents’ regret is mentioned in a 2005 book by John Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. It goes without saying (though perhaps, given the occasion, the professor said it) that this thorough destruction would have encompassed the eradication of the battle flag and every other symbol of the Confederacy. The swastika is forbidden in Germany. I suppose a lunatic fringe could argue it would help us remember the Hitler who was an earnest German nationalist devoted to tradition. To everyone else the swastika symbolized war, conquest, and genocide and it had to go. The Confederate battle flag is a comparable symbol of tyranny—if you equate slavery with tyranny, which not everyone does. It’s enjoyed a much gentler fate.

Why? Hitler was toppled from without, by nations he’d gone to war against. The Confederacy was defeated by American coconspirators. Coski explains, “‘Southern’ attitudes towards states rights and race are not just southern but are in fact American attitudes. Historians acknowledge that ‘anti-slavery’ impulses in the antebellum era were based on antipathy toward blacks and that the nation’s willingness to allow the South to handle the ‘Negro problem’ in its own way at the beginning of the twentieth century revealed common racial attitudes. . . . When faced with demographic circumstances resembling those of the South, white people of other regions turned against blacks as quickly and ferociously as white southerners.”

When I was a kid Jim Crow was the way things were. You could disapprove of it, and most people up north did, but their hearts weren’t in it. In civics classes in high school Jim Crow was discussed as something that would disappear in the better world we all hoped to live in when we grew up. Cancer got the same treatment, except that cancer was more personal and frightened us a little. But curing cancer was someone else’s fight, and ending Jim Crow was too. At least researchers out on the frontiers of science were admired; civil rights zealots were dismissed by southerners and northerners alike as pinko agitators.

Coski calls the battle flag the “second American flag” and observes that it represents something real about the south—which is “simultaneously an integral, even fiercely patriotic, part of the country and a distinct, sometimes alienated region that carries the unique burden of having fought and lost a war against the rest of the nation.” As Coski points out, the south hasn’t turned its back on the Stars and Stripes. Northern liberals might recall that during the great campaigns of the 1960s, southern conservatives protested federal civil rights laws by restoring the Confederate battle flag to a place of prominence, while to oppose war protesters, conservatives north and south waved Old Glory.

One of America’s more prominent college fraternities is Kappa Alpha, founded in Virginia in 1865 and proud to identify Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.” Its members were known to deck themselves out in Confederate army uniforms on ceremonial occasions and to gallop across the field at football games flourishing the Confederate battle flag. I turn to their pages in my college yearbook, and there they are in their regalia, swords held high. Another picture finds uniformed KAs on horseback, one holding the battle flag. If I recall correctly the general response to KAs on campus, it was to vaguely disapprove of them, be amused, and enjoy the show.

A nice guy I’ve known since high school pledged. “I was never very comfortable with the sometimes expressed sympathies that the South was not beaten, they were just waiting for supplies,” he writes. “While I don’t remember any verbal prejudice expressed against African Americans in casual conversations among the fraternity brothers, I’m sure it existed below the radar. I picked KA because I liked the guys and the brand-new chapter house was to die for. For me, the fraternity’s southern leanings meant magnolia blossoms and Southern belles in hoop skirts.”

But in 1984 KA passed a resolution ordering chapters to conduct their annual Old South Balls “with restraint and dignity and without displays of trappings and symbols which might be misinterpreted and objectionable to the general public.” (As of 2010, these trappings and symbols explicitly included Confederate uniforms.) In 1988 KA ruled out the possession or use of an “operable cannon.” As of 2001 the battle flag could no longer be displayed in a frat house or anywhere else.

The Sun-Times‘s Neil Steinberg, who draws from Coski’s book in his Wednesday column, doubts that the battle flag is going anywhere—”because the bigotry it symbolizes is still at gale force.” Maybe. But if you know just where to look, you’ll find progress.