On Monday evening, antiracist protestors in Durham, North Carolina tore down a statue of a Confederate soldier dedicated, as the inscription on the monument put it, to “the memory of the boys who wore the gray.” It was a beautiful moment. And, in the wake of the violent rampage led by white supremacists in Charlottesville last weekend, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Since then, Baltimore has removed Confederate statues and numerous other cities across the South are following suit.
Predictably, however, there is already a right-wing backlash underway. Outrageously, felony charges have been filed in Durham against Takiyah Thompson and other activists who helped topple the Confederate statue.
Trump has weighed in, too. In a rant that at various times gave support to the white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville, Trump came out strongly against removing Confederate monuments on the grounds that doing so “changes history and culture.”
Trump’s remarks were anything but novel. The idea that removing symbols of the Confederacy is tantamount to suppressing the past and “rewriting history” is a familiar one on the hard right. The truth, however, is that these monuments were erected long after the Civil War to suppress memory of that event (and its aftermath) in order to cement in place the lie that the South is, always was, and always will be dedicated to the values that animated the Confederacy.
The Confederate battle flag has the same function. Even today, it is ubiquitous in many parts of South — indeed, until very recently, it was flying above the capitol buildings of several Southern states. Although its defenders often argue that it is nothing more than a benign way of honoring the past, the history of the flag tells a very different story.
Even a cursory glance at its historical origins makes clear that it is a potent symbol of white supremacy. It is, after all, the battle flag of an army amassed by a small class of wealthy slavers for the purpose of keeping black people in chains. Architects of the Confederate army, such as Alexander Stephens, were clear about their goals: “The cornerstone [of the Confederate States of America] 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 normal condition.”
The flag’s origins date back to 1861. Shortly after the first armed conflicts of the Civil War, Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard — after whom, along with Jefferson Davis, current Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions is named — ordered William Porcher Miles to create a battle flag that “would be entirely different from any State or Federal flag.”
Both Beauregard and Miles were wealthy and politically connected members of the Southern ruling class. Like Jefferson Davis, the president of the short-lived Confederate States of America, Beauregard and Miles were men whose fortunes and power rested on the continued exploitation of black slave labor to produce cash crops such as cotton and tobacco. Indeed, slaveowners made up the bulk of the very wealthiest people in the United States at the time.
The same cannot be said for most of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died fighting for the Confederate Army. Most of these men were poor subsistence farmers. Few of them had any real political power. What did they die for?
The simplest answer is that they died defending slavery — a racist institution built upon the premise that black people were mere instruments of production. But in doing so, however, these men also betrayed their own class and themselves — all for the sake of protecting the wealth and power of a tiny ruling class who looked upon them with scorn.
From the beginning of the Confederacy, the Southern ruling classes fretted over whether they could win over masses of poor, non-slaveowning whites to their cause. This, of course, is the problem every minority ruling class in history has had to face — the problem of how to make the sectional, particular interests of the ruling elite appear to be the universal interests of all. But the context of war — when significantly greater sacrifices will be required of the masses than is normal — makes this problem even more acute.
Of course, the slaveowning elite didn’t have to start from scratch — they could begin making their pitch for secession from an ideological baseline already drenched in white supremacist ideology designed to legitimate black oppression and bury latent class conflicts among whites.
As the historian Stephanie McCurry notes in her masterful study of the internal political dynamics of the Confederacy, pro-secessionist elites “made much of the fact that slavery constituted white men” — all white men, even the poor yeomen farmers who didn’t own slaves — “as a privileged class in the South; that it made them members of a political elite and turned the franchise into a particularly valuable possession and mark of manhood and whiteness . . . Indeed this was the centerpiece of their campaign strategy” to win over poor whites.
That is exactly what Jefferson Davis was up to when he said — no doubt disingenuously, given his wealthy background — that the enslavement of black people, “raises white men to the same general level, that it dignifies and exalts every white man by the presence of a lower race.”
The more desperate elite secessionist campaigners became, however, the more they appealed to highly sexualized racist scare tactics to drum up support for war. As McCurry documents, “images of white women as objects of protection were reached for most readily in nervous briefs about nonslaveholders’ loyalty to the planters’ regime.” Georgia governor Joseph Brown, for example, explicitly called for class unity among rich planters and poor whites by appealing to the idea that possession and dominion over of white women was what distinguished poor whites from slaves: “We all poor and rich have a common interest, a common destiny, a common enemy . . . If our rights of property are assailed by a common enemy shall we not help each other? Or if I have a wife and children and a house, and another has neither wife nor children nor house. Will he therefore stand by and see my house burned and my wife butchered because he has none?”
Numerous other examples make the same point. For example, in one of the most widely read pro-secessionist political pamphlets of the period, John Townsend warned poor whites that unless they joined the planters’ crusade, “the midnight glare of the incendiaries’ torch will illuminate the country from one end to another, while pillage, violence, murder, poison, and rape will fill the air with the demonic revelry of all the bad passions of an ignorant, semi-barbarous race, urged to madness by the licentious teachings of our northern brethren.”
This racist trope about the lascivious nonwhite sexual predator, of course, is a persistent feature of white supremacist ideology all the way up to present — indeed, it’s hard to read the words of paranoid Confederates obsessed with the sexual and racial “purity” of white women and not think of Trump’s racist slanders against Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” “animals,” and so forth.
Not all of the poor whites in the South were convinced by this ruling class propaganda campaign, however. Large numbers of yeomen farmers in the “upcountry” either refused the slaver’s call or engaged in various forms of armed resistance and sabotage against the Confederacy. Scores more joined the Union army to risk their lives on the battlefield to defeat the Confederates — eight thousand from the Ozarks alone enlisted to defeat the army of the slavers.
To be sure, these Southern whites weren’t all committed antiracists and abolitionists, but they were strongly convinced that the planters’ secessionist project was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” They refused to line up to die for the exclusive benefit of a small class of rich slaveowners. As one citizen of Winston County in the northern Alabama hill country put it at the time: “All tha want is to git you . . . to fight for their infurnal negroes and after you do their fightin’ you may kiss their hine parts for o tha care.”
East Tennessee in particular was a hotbed of anti-Confederate sentiment. As historian Eric Foner notes, “long conscious of its remoteness from the rest of the state, supporters of the Confederacy in East Tennessee formed a small minority, except among the wealthier and more cultured class.” In many cases there was fierce hatred of the Confederacy. Foner, for example, describes the writings of William G. Brownlow, a circuit-riding Methodist preacher from East Tennessee, who wrote in 1864 that he would “arm every wolf, panther, catamount, and bear in the mountains of America . . . every rattlesnake and crocodile . . . every devil in Hell, and turn them loose upon the Confederacy.”
Indeed, under Confederate occupation, pro-Union Southern whites were ruthlessly persecuted, hunted, and many times killed. As Foner describes it, “throughout the upcountry, Unionists abandoned their homes to hide from conscription officers and Confederate sheriffs, who hunted them, as they had once hunted runaway slaves, with bloodhounds; some found refuge in the very mountain caves that had once sheltered fugitives from bondage.”
If large numbers of white Southerners were never convinced in the first place to join the Confederate cause, many more would arrive at anti-planter political conclusions of various sorts by the Civil War’s end. The sources of class discontent were many, but chief among them was the planter class’s decision to resist calls to increase food cultivation, preferring instead to continue growing cotton and tobacco for sale on the world market. So, too, were the class-biased rules for conscription a source of contention — planters who owned more than twenty slaves were granted exemptions from military service.
As Foner points out, “yeomen supplied the bulk of Confederate soldiers” but also “the majority of deserters and draft resisters.” Indeed, by the time the war ended, more than one hundred thousand men had deserted the Confederate Army — the vast majority of them poor.
What, then, are the class politics of the Confederate battle flag? There is no way to escape the fact that the flag symbolizes a (largely successful, though contested) campaign by elites to hoodwink poor whites into throwing their lives away to protect ruling class wealth and privilege.
There is no way to set aside the fact that the flag means taking the side of sadistic Confederate sheriffs who hunted down and murdered white Southerners who opposed the secessionist project. There is no way to ignore the fact that flying this flag is like spitting on the graves of the many thousands of poor Southerners who deserted the Confederate army, resisted the draft, or engaged in various forms of resistance against a political project of, by, and for the rich. Indeed, more than anything else, the flag symbolizes the success of the ruling class in convincing large swaths of poor whites that they had nothing to gain from allying with black people in a fight to destroy the hierarchies of race and class that defined the social order of the antebellum South.
The way some Southerners tell it, however, the flag symbolizes nothing more than a vague affirmation of regional pride and “Southern heritage.” Indeed, some white Southerners seem to even see in the flag a class-specific meaning, whereby it expresses pride in being a poor white “redneck.” That is as wrong-headed as it is tragic. It’s not simply that some — though not all — poor and working-class white Southerners have come to see the slavers’ racist battle flag as a bearer of their cultural identity. Here are working class people who feel a personal, emotional connection with a political symbol created to trick their ancestors into suffering — and in many cases dying painful, gruesome deaths — for the sake of the idle rich.
The depths of protracted collective amnesia needed to pull this off boggle the mind. This is no mere individual failing — this is the result of a long battle waged by elites, dating from the defeat of Reconstruction in 1877, to rewrite history and reestablish a white supremacist polity dominated by the rich upon the ruins of the Confederacy. And HBO’s new series Confederate, which is likely to exacerbate this crisis of mass amnesia, is hardly an outlier; As Eileen Jones has pointed out, there are dozens of films about the Civil War but one can count the number of pro-Union films on one hand.
That racism is devastating — and in many cases deadly — for communities of color is obvious. But as the history above makes clear, in many cases racial oppression also has the function of stabilizing the rule of wealthy elites who can defeat challenges from below with divide-and-conquer tactics. Indeed, Trump, Bannon, and Sessions are only the most recent participants in this longstanding, time-honored American tradition of stoking white racism to divide workers and deflect anger away from the ruling class. As W. E. B. Du Bois emphasized long ago in his study of labor relations in the South before and after the Civil War, “so long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with Negroes, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible.”
This dynamic is important for understanding why, even today, the South is the area of the United States where the labor movement is the weakest (and wages are the lowest). As the recent defeat of the UAW at a Mississippi Nissan plant reminds us, Southern workplaces are still mostly unorganized and nonunion.
There is a hidden history of militant working-class and antiracist organizing in the South, however, that must be built upon in order to turn the tide today. From what Seth Ackerman has called “The Douglass Option” to the class struggles led by the Knights of Labor, there are many examples of working-class people, black and white, bucking the stereotype of the South as inherently backward and conservative.
Though you probably didn’t read about it in history class, so, too, is there a long history of multiracial radical left organizing in the South. Indeed, as Robin D.G. Kelley documents in Hammer and Hoe, in the midst of the Great Depression in Alabama the Communist Party was able to build a sizable multiracial organization “composed largely of poor blacks . . . but also a small circle of white folks ranging from ex-Klansmen to former Wobblies, unemployed male industrial workers to iconoclastic youth, restless housewives to renegade liberals.” Tellingly, racist vigilantes and police attacked the mostly black membership of the organization but they also lynched white members in an effort to prevent interracial solidarity among workers — precisely because they knew how dangerous such an alliance would be to the existing order in the South.
This history is important because the prospects today for building the Left in the United States are better than they have been in more than a generation — and this definitely includes the South. Unlike many liberals, the socialist left should not write off huge swaths of the country. The growth of socialist organization in many so-called “red states” since Trump was elected proves that there is space to organize and build the Left in the South. And the fact that a newly resurgent racist far-right has the South in its crosshairs makes the need for specifically socialist politics even more pressing. This is a necessary step toward defeating racism and uniting workers around a program that can challenge the entrenched power of Southern elites.
To be sure, the ubiquity of the Confederate flag in certain corners of the South is a painful reminder of the long road ahead. As Stuart Schrader points out, the flag remains one of the most iconic emblems of loss for white supremacists — much like the Rhodesian flag or flags from apartheid-era South Africa. It’s not for nothing, after all, that numerous images exist showing racist mass murderer Dylan Roof wearing patches of all three flags on his jacket.
The path to challenging the dominance of the myth of the “Lost Cause” and all of its reactionary political corollaries, however, means generalizing the truth that the Confederate flag lionizes both racists and class traitors — indeed the two are inseparable. Only on this basis can we take up the inspiring tradition forged by Southern radicals of the past and defeat white supremacy and class rule.