For many in the South, the Confederate battle flag is a common sight. Following the shooting of nine African-Americans in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, this past June, the flag has come under fire as a symbol of white supremacy and racism. A local group, Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, aims to change the negative implications surrounding it.
Tom Mould, professor of anthropology at Elon University, said that while no symbol is inherently racist, a symbol’s historical uses and implications are markers of whether or not they’re appropriate in certain spaces.
"Symbols are culturally constructed, and they’re constructed by the people who see them," he said.
Because of the culturally constructed nature of symbols like flags, each person has different perceptions of symbols based on past experiences with them.
“The argument is that when the Confederate flag has been used publicly, more often than not it has been used in racist contexts,” Mould said. “It’s hard to resurrect that symbol in public spaces and say that it’s not for racist ideology. People can still have that flag in their homes, individuals may still see that flag ... as not racist, but they’re in a position where they’re not threatened by that flag."
Origins of Taking Back Alamance County
Taking Back Alamance County found its start after the battle flag was removed from the South Carolina State House following the Charleston shootings. Another local group, Concerned Citizens of Alamance County, attempted to remove the Confederate memorial in nearby Graham. In response, Taking Back Alamance County gathered more than 1,500 people from across Alamance County in a counter-protest, according to the group's founder Gary Williamson. County commissioners voted to keep the monument.
Williamson said he found it disheartening that the Charleston shooter's actions would overshadow what, in his mind, the flag stands for and therefore erase Confederate flag supporters' history.
“This is something that needs to stay alive and pass on to our children,” Williamson said during an Oct. 8 group meeting. “A lot of people don't understand why so many people still cherish the flags of the Southern cause. I understand that [the misconceptions come] from only being taught the negative side and not the honorable side that true Southerners stand by.”
Williamson lamented the fact that the general public “doesn’t understand” the group's purpose, saying that in order to change negative perceptions of Confederate groups, they are working within local communities to spread awareness.
Another member of the group added, “If we can do a charity and it reaches a school, people will see it.”
According to Williamson, most people only see the flag and their support for their ancestors instead of other initiatives the group is pursuing, like food drives and contributing to charity. Williamson emphasized that Taking Back Alamance County has no ties to groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and that they will not stand for their flag being used as a tool for hate any longer.
"We will fight as hard against [hate groups] just as we will against any group that threatens to bring our country down," Williamson said. "Many do not agree with our views, [but they] are very simple, and all we ask is to be left alone when it comes to our heritage."
“We’re common people with common values,” Williamson said. “We’re also Confederates.”
The Confederate flag's place in history
The argument for preserving Southern heritage and culture through the flag is a common one. According to Jim Bissett, professor of history at Elon, the Confederate battle flag has become the ultimate symbol of the South because it is “the most recognizable symbol of the Confederacy.”
“It has become the symbol of the Confederacy, and it’s been used for the last half a century, anyway, as a symbol of the Confederacy — but also the symbol of white supremacy,” Bissett said.
According to Mould, people aren’t always aware of their own racial biases.
“We’re all racist — black, white, everybody. We all make these divisions. It’s just how we discriminate according to those biases,” Mould said. “Are there people in that group that aren’t racists and according to various kinds of measure, really wouldn’t be? Absolutely. Are there some that are and who are saying they’re not? I’m sure there are. The trick is that’s not really the point.”
Mould argues that even though owning a Confederate flag doesn’t automatically make someone racist, its historical use as a sign of white supremacy and racial hatred have made it symbolic of more than just the South.
“We have to balance their right to have this flag — and no one is saying you can’t have that flag in your home or in private spaces or wherever you control the context,” Mould said. “It’s just that the public context has been so clearly articulated again and again for the past 50 years of being anti-civil rights and anti-black that it’s just hard to keep putting that up and not expect a large body of the population to see it as racist.”
Williamson cited the Charleston shootings as a turning point in national attention on the use of the Confederate flag in the South.
“What makes me feel like [they’re taking the history away]?" Williamson asked. "They’re taking down memorials, flags, everything, all over the country and they’re erasing it all -- or trying to, anyway.”
According to Mark Self, a member of Taking Back Alamance County, people who fly Confederate flags should not be immediately placed in the same box as groups like the KKK, which he said he and Williamson have both been accused of being members of. Williamson has received death threats before from people who have accused him of being a Klan member.
Self said there are "bad people in every race and culture," and Southerners standing up for the preservation of their heritage should be allowed to do so without judgement.
"When you try to back them into a corner and strip away everything that means something to them and bend their arm, you’re going to get people standing up and trying to take back everything you’re trying to pull away from them, and that’s pretty much what [is happening],” Self said.
Bissett compared the soldiers who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War to those who served the Vietnam War: While the war itself was “misguided,” that does not necessarily mean the soldiers as individuals should be demonized.
“Many of them did fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War,” Bissett said. “It’s not appropriate to dismiss them or attack them. It’s really a challenge to the leaders who got us into the war, but many of the individual soldiers who fought were drafted — they had no choice — or they fought because that’s what they thought was their patriotic duty was. I don’t mean to dismiss that, but what I think we need to do is to acknowledge that the cause of the war was faulty and therefore should not be celebrated."
Value of the Confederate flag
One of the group members in attendance, Phyllis Leggate, felt passionately about the Southern Confederate preservation cause. She related her patriotic feelings as a native of Scotland to the desires of Southerners to protect their own culture and heritage.
"You can't lose history," she said. "If you didn't have history, you wouldn't have a future."
Toward the end of the Taking Back Alamance County meeting, Williamson reminded his fellow members to be proud of their cause and what they've contributed to the local community.
"Feel proud," he said. "Some days I feel down, but then I get home and remember what I'm doing ... I'm standing up for my forefathers."
According to Mould, the argument that the Confederate battle flag is a necessary part of preserving Southern heritage is flawed. There are many equally as important parts of the culture that could serve as a symbol of this culture.
“It has been used dramatically and recently as a symbol of racial hatred,” Mould said. “What I would suggest is there are all kinds of symbols of Southern heritage that you can hold that haven’t been used to very explicitly hold back a whole population of your Southern brothers and sisters. It just seems an odd choice.”
For Williamson, the choice to fly the Confederate flag stems from his respect for soldiers' sacrifices during the Civil War and desire to preserve a central symbol of Southern culture and pride.
"I’m from the South," Williamson said. "That is a culture, and wherever you’re from, I’m sure it’s a different culture than it here.”
Mould doesn't think public perception of the flag will change any time soon because of its history as a tool to sustain the status quo.
“As much as we want everyone to be able to bring their own interpretations to it, its dominant interpretation is so ugly that it doesn’t seem to outweigh the idea that it’s the only symbol we can possibly use for Southern heritage,” Mould said. “There are wonderful things about Southern culture. Let’s find other ways to memorialize them.”