My flight from NYC arrived in Columbia, South Carolina at 11:30 am on the 23rd of June. I had not seen my father nor my two sisters in some time. To say the least, the trip was overdue. While walking across to the tarmac to the arrivals terminal, I began to sweat in the oppressive heat. About 40 minutes later, I was sitting in my older sister’s VW on our way to Lexington to visit my dad. During the ride, my sister and I discussed the heat wave that had settled over the area. My sister suggested that if I wanted to feel some real heat I should drive into Columbia and sample the heat being generated by the ongoing protests over the rebel flag. I liked the idea!
Professor of American Studies of the University of Virginia, David Sacrett, considered the rebel flag controversy at the website “The Confederate Flag Controversy and Culture: A Semiotics Analysis.” He used a semiotic analysis to put the controversy into perspective. He correctly noted that symbols like the confederate flag have no intrinsic meaning. The professor begins his scholarly essay by stating:
The Confederate flag is one of the most controversial, inflammatory icons of American culture, and even has a significant presence abroad. What causes people to feel so strongly about the emblem of a regional entity that ceased to exist over 130 years ago? What relevance does such a symbol have in our society today? What insight into our culture can we gain by examining an icon such as the Confederate Flag?”
Without going into to detail, Semioticians try to make explicit what is usually only implicit. During my sojourn into Columbia, I realized that the protesters had staked out positions that had little to do with real historical events and more to do with personal interpretations of the meaning of the Flag. It was if the flag actually spoke to the viewer about its meaning. It is because of this that the politics of the Flag is based upon ugly emotions.
In Columbia, I walked among the protesters. I listened to the positions that they advocated. Emotions ran high, at times, rational thought was lacking.
The protesters who urged the removal of the Flag, saw it as a symbol of oppression. In particular, it represented the eternal subjugation of Blacks by Whites. According to these protesters, White Supremacist groups pledged allegiance to the flag and used it as a rallying point to spread hate and fear. Lastly, these advocates for the removal of the Flag believed that the time had come for South Carolina to shed it racist past and join the modern era of tolerance.
On the side of the divide were the protesters who wanted the Confederate flag to stay on state grounds. Basically, they argued that the flag represented the sacrifice that ancestors made on behalf of the South Carolina. The flag was part of the history and cultural fabric of all South Carolinians.
Some of the arguments that I heard that day were as compelling as they were historically inaccurate. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to succeeded. The civil war began because of uncompromising positions over the power of the federal government. To prevent succession, President Lincoln was amenable to allowing the Southern States to keep their slaves. The Confederacy was legally formed, even though not recognized by the Federal government, in February 1861, before Lincoln even took office.
During the third year of the war, Lincoln issued the much discussed and revered Emancipation Proclamation. Yet, this executive order freed few slaves. It did not free any slaves in border states fighting for the Union. Slaves in states already under Union control were not freed. Lincoln was a firm believer in White supremacy and started the Civil War in hopes of preserving the Union. South Carolina has always been seen as the instigator of succession and a supporter racial inequality.
During my hours of mingling with the protesters, I was surprised that no one was talking about Dylann Roof’s horrific act of gunning down praying church goers.