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White Supremacy’s Gross Symbol: What the Stars and Bars Really Represent

March 27, 2015 in Blogs

By Elias Isquith, Salon

It didn't take long before the Confederate flag became a symbol of racism.

As Paul Campos noted earlier this week, the Supreme Court will hand down a ruling later this year on whether a state can stop its citizens from purchasing specialty license plates featuring the Confederate flag. The case is a complex and interesting one that raises all sorts of questions about free speech. But while the court has been grappling with the limits and mandates of the First Amendment, the outside world has been engaged in a different, less esoteric discussion.

It’s one that’s popped up time and again throughout American history, and will undoubtedly continue to rears its head, at least so long as “Sweet Home Alabama” is a staple of classic rock radio. What, really, is the meaning of the Confederate flag? Is it simply a sign of Southern heritage, as former Rep. Ben Jones argued recently? Or is it a symbol of “treason in the defense of slavery,” as Campos writes?

Seeking answers, Salon recently spoke over the phone with James McPherson, the celebrated historian of American history and author of the classic Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era and this year’s The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters.We discussed the creation of the flag, the way its meaning changed throughout U.S. history, and how Confederate leaders might feel about its continued prevalence today. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Elias Isquith: Most schoolchildren are taught the story (or myth) of Betsy Ross and the creation of the U.S. flag. Is there a story behind the Confederate flag, too?

James McPherson: Well, we know who designed the Confederate battle flag, which is the one you’re talking about; the St. Andrew’s Cross, red background and blue cross with the white stars on it. That’s actually not the Confederate national flag, although it appeared as part of the third and fourth Confederate national flags.

The original Confederate national flag had three broad bars, a red bar, a white bar and red bar, and then …read more


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