The heritage-or-hate debate regarding the Confederate battle flag has once again surged into popular consciousness in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre. Unlike in previous episodes of debate, however, public opinion has coalesced around the view that this long-controversial symbol of the Confederacy should be removed from statehouses and store shelves because of its connection to the Charleston gunman’s actions.
The flag’s defenders have argued that the effort to purge the symbol from public spaces is based on a misunderstanding of the flag’s meaning. Rather than an emblem of white supremacy, they consider it a benign symbol of respect for their ancestors who fought for their homeland more than 150 years ago.
Is it possible to reconcile the very different understandings of the flag? Fifty years ago, a group of southern students sought to do just that. And their effort demonstrates the difficulty in assigning new meaning to an old symbol.
The Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC) was founded in 1964 in Nashville, the creation of a group of white students who were supportive of the black struggle for civil rights. SSOC distinguished itself from other student groups of the day both in composition — its members were almost entirely native white southerners — and in its goal to build support for civil rights in white communities and on predominantly white campuses across the South.
In an effort to reach these whites with their message of racial reform and reconciliation, the SSOC students often deployed the symbols and rhetoric of the Confederacy, albeit with a twist. The group initially called its newsletter The New Rebel to make the point that they were rebelling against the segregationist order that dominated the South. Later, the group spoke of “seceding” from the war being waged in Vietnam and from the oppression of African Americans at home.
Most provocatively, the group adopted as its logo an image of the Confederate battle flag with clasped black and white hands superimposed over it. This was not the first time the flag had been repurposed in this manner.
Chicago union organizers had utilized a similar design in the 1940s to convey opposition to workplace discrimination. And white Boston civil rights supporters had sold buttons with the image in the early 1960s to raise funds for the movement. But to use this modified image of the flag in the South as a tool for recruiting white support for civil rights was something altogether different. Would the eye-catching logo help ease white opposition to the movement? Or would it be seen as offering support for the values and beliefs of the Confederacy?
Despite its adoption, the logo sowed deep divisions in the group. Supporters argued that the black and white hands negated the symbol’s original connection to the Confederacy and instead highlighted commonality between the races in the South.
They also said that the flag allowed them to combine their commitment to racial equality with pride in their ancestors who fought bravely for their homes and families. In this view, the interlocked hands and the flag, together, suggested a new beginning, a fusion of support for civil rights and reverence for one’s forebears.
The flag’s detractors rejected such views. To them, incorporating the flag into the group’s logo undercut SSOC’s claim to be a progressive organization. How could any civil rights group make use of the preeminent symbol of the Confederacy?
More pointedly, they believed that the flag was morally repugnant and could never be disconnected from its original historical context; it was, and would always be, a symbol of slavery and white supremacy. No modification could ever erase its original meaning and transform it into a symbol of interracial unity.
Poet and activist Don West, a staunch supporter of SSOC, captured this sentiment in a letter he wrote the group urging it to drop the logo. “That flag, like the Nazi swastika, symbolized a brutal power which kept millions in chattel slavery and millions more in poverty,” West wrote. “If you’re going to be ‘rebels,’ get another flag!”
SSOC never did adopt another logo, and its use of the battle flag remained a point of contention within the group. It also damaged its progressive credentials, made other activist organizations suspicious of its intentions, and, ultimately, helped widen the divisions that would lead to the group’s collapse at the end of the 1960s.
As a group committed to racial equality, SSOC valiantly worked to build white support for civil rights. But its effort to disentangle the battle flag from its Confederate past fell flat and highlights the difficulty—indeed, the impossibility—then, and now, of giving the emblem of the defeated, slaveholding South new meaning.
*Featured/top image: Civil War display with confederate flag at Charleston Museum. Photo by Edward Stojakovic.