As Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday, the image of one protestor carrying the Confederate flag caught everyone’s attention. This was the first time that the Confederate flag had appeared inside the halls of the Capitol.
The image is significant because of what the flag stands for –– white supremacy and the social and political exclusion of coloured people.
The Confederate battle flag has reached the United States Capitol building, something that did not happen during the Civil War. https://t.co/8knlrEzCzQ
— Joseph M. Adelman (@jmadelman) January 6, 2021
The Confederate flag originated during the Civil War of 1861. But it emerged as a political symbol only in the 20th century in context of writing a new narrative remembering the war.
How did the Confederate flag originate
The flag represented the seven southern Confederate States of America (CSA) that seceded from the union in 1861 after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. Four more states joined them later. Lincoln was in favour of banning slavery in US territories which were not states. The southern states, heavily dependent on slave labour, saw this as a grander plan to abolish slavery completely and thereby an attack on their constitutional rights.
Consequently, a four-year war ensued that lasted from 1861 to 1865 and ended with the defeat of the Confederate states. The Civil War is known to have been the costliest and the deadliest war in America, leading to the death of approximately 620,000 soldiers, and leaving millions more injured, with large parts of the South in ruins.
In 1862, while the war was on, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in Confederate states. Even though he described it as a military measure, and the slaves in the union states were not freed, the Emancipation Proclamation would play a decisive role in eventually ending slavery in America. Close to 186,000 emancipated Black slaves joined the Union army by 1865.
How did the Confederate flag emerge as a political symbol after the war?
For about a decade after the war ended, the US military occupied much of the South to help it rebuild and become part of the Union again. The period of reconstruction, as it was called, fuelled resentment among the whites, which many continue to harbour till date.
Thereby, the post-Civil War South embraced the Confederate flag as a symbol of their ‘lost cause’. By the end of the century, the flag became a symbol of honouring the Confederate dead and also a romanticised version of the cause of the Civil War.
An example of how the flag was used to rewrite the history of the civil war is the way it was featured in the popular 1939 film, ‘Gone with the wind’. The scene depicting a field full of wounded and dead soldiers and framed with a majestically waving Confederate flag explains how sections of 20th century America tried to reimagine the history of the Civil War.
By the mid-20th century, the Confederate flag had come to symbolise resistance against laws of segregation. In 1948, there was a Southern regional split in the Democratic party. The Dixiecrats, as the new party was called, were against president Harry S Truman’s efforts at addressing the civil rights of African Americans. The Dixiecrats wanted to retain racial segregation. The Confederate flag was very prominent in the Dixiecrat campaign during the 1948 presidential election. It was also used frequently by the white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
In the mid-20th century, as the Civil Rights movement gained steam, the Confederate flag acquired more prominence. In 1956, the state of Georgia redesigned their flag to include a Confederate battle flag. In 1962, South Carolina hoisted the flag atop the Capitol building in Columbia.
More recently, the flag caused a furore when in 2015, a 21-year old white supremacist carried out a mass shooting in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which nine African-Americans were killed. A photo emerged soon of the youth holding the Confederate flag.
Mississippi is the last state to have removed the Confederate flag. It continued using it well up till last year despite a raging debate over the same.
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