On Displaying the Confederate Battle Flag

The Supremes are going to discuss whether displaying a confederate battle flag on your custom license plate is protected by free speech.

In 1980 when I went up north to school I had a Confederate battle flag on my wall.  I keep calling it the battle flag because in fact the flag you are thinking about (the one on the Dukes of Hazard's car) is not actually the flag of the Confederate nation.  Most folks could not describe the original Confederate flag under torture (here it is).

So the flag you are thinking about, and the Supremes are considering, was actually based on the battle flags of certain state militias, like that of Virginia and Tennessee.  It was also used by the Confederate Navy, and was incorporated into a redesign of the official Confederate flag late in the war.

Anyway, there were a couple of reasons a young Texan might put up this flag in his northern dorm room.  First, it is awesome looking.  There are a lot of bad flags in the world, but this is a great-looking flag.  Second, at the time it represented the southern pride of a lot of us who found ourselves displaced and living in that odd northeastern college culture.  It never represented (at least at the time) anything racist for me.  For southerners (many of us raised, without knowing it, on the Lost Cause school of Civil War historiography) it represented pride and pluck and scrappy determination.

Anyway, I don't remember getting any pushback on the flag at the time.  Over the years, though, I came to recognize that the flag was seen by many as a symbol of racism.  Part of that was my increasing awareness but a large part was shifts in society and its perceptions -- remember the Dukes of Hazard was a real, popular network show that could likely never get made today.   I suppose I could have retained the flag as a symbol of what I thought it was a symbol for, and just ignored other peoples' opinion.  But at some point, I realized that other peoples' good opinion of me had value and that I needed to acknowledge how they saw the flag and put it away in a box.

Which brings me back to license plates.  If a state is going to create a license plate program where people can make statements with their license plates, then people should be able to make the statement they want to make.  I know there are folks in the south who honestly still cling to the symbolism I used to attach to the Confederate battle flag.  But let's leave those folks aside.  Let's assume for a moment that everyone who wants to display this symbol on their car is a racist.  Shouldn't we be thrilled if they want to do so?  Here would be a program where racists would voluntarily self-identify to all as a racist (they would even pay extra to do so!)  What would be a greater public service?

I make this same argument when people want to ban speakers from campus.  If people are willing to come forward with evil thoughts and intentions and announce them publicly, why wouldn't we let them?  It's is fine to want to eliminate evil from the Earth, but shilling banning hateful speech doesn't do this -- it only drives evil underground.

Postscript:  I actually started thinking about this driving down I-40 from Knoxville to Nashville yesterday.  In a bend in the road, on a hill, there is a large home.  Their land goes right out to the bend in the highway, and on that bend they have put up a huge flag pole with a big Confederate battle flag.  You can see it from miles in each direction.  I didn't get a picture but there are plenty on the web. From searching for it, there are apparently similar installations on private land in other states.  As I drove, having nothing else to do, I thought a lot about what message they were trying to send.  Was it just southern pride?  Were they really racists?  If they weren't racists, did they know that many would think them as such?  And if so, did they even care -- was this in fact just a giant FU?

 Update:  Fixed the typo in the last line.  Did I mean chilling?  Not even sure.  Banning is what I meant.


  1. Griz:

    Having met some Southern History buffs. I can certainly understand the southern pride aspect of displaying the flag. I also understand the racist symbolism others see. My question is who gets to decide symbolism? The media? They have been defining conservative symbolism in a biased way for decades. Maybe it is time to regain the definition.

  2. August Hurtel:

    I've seen the battle flag show up in some black 'culture' stuff. I think it was used by the 'dirty South' rappers, mainly to differentiate themselves from the East and West coast rappers- similar to why you had it in your dorm.

  3. Another_Brian:

    remember the Dukes of Hazard was a real, popular network show that could likely never get made today.

    This was actually something they addressed in the Dukes of Hazard movie put out a few years ago. The Dukes are stuck in traffic in Atlanta and wondering why everyone is staring at them, then finally figure out it's because of the giant battle flag painted on the top of the car. In this case, it's not even a Yankee misunderstanding, but urban Southerners that don't seem to understand the alternative perspective on the symbolism of the battle flag.

  4. skhpcola:

    Each person gets to define their own symbolism, but they don't get to define the meaning of the symbol. Nazis thought that the swastika meant something completely different than skinheads think that it means, for example. An Obama bumpersticker is proudly sported by his supporters as a totem of inclusion in a larger group, while I see that and think, "Oh, look there, it's a fucking leftist asshole, roaming free despite his totalitarian, dystopian desires."

  5. skhpcola:

    "Urban Southerners" are really Yankee invaders. No mystery to this...

  6. me:

    Symbols are a means of synchronization and maintaining group identity. The problem begins when they are used to condition behavior. As an example, the swastika was an innocent symbol of indian origin, got adopted by the Nazis, who started showing the flag in greater and greater numbers. Not really much of an issue up to this point. The next step, though, when people displaying the symbol get preferential treatment and people not displaying it get the *other* kind of treatment... there you have your issue in a nutshell: not displaying group allegiance contrains your freedom.

    Technically, license plate personalisation should be completely off limits - plates serve a purpose, and if you really want to personalize things, well, personalize the heck out of the remainder of your vehicle (same considerations as above apply, obviously).

    Practically, any law suit debating this matter is a good indication that there is quite a bit of suspicion of tribalism with respect to the symbols under debate.

  7. skhpcola:

    States began the personalization crap as a revenue booster. In my state, at least, those tags come with a premium fee. They likely didn't foresee that allowing certain benign groups (teachers, LEOs, whatever) to have their own plates would also open the door to groups that aren't so inclusive. I can't imagine why anybody would want a vanity tag, but if one group can get them, then anybody should, even if the symbols on them are anathema to polite society.

  8. jimcraq:

    For my part I would not display a symbol that is likely to offend others. But it rankles. I'm not a fan of the battle flag, but I still smiled when I saw it on a sticker that read "If you don't like it, don't look at it."

    Here's another symbol that is even more widely offensive:
    Hindus or Buddhists would be well advised not to display it.

  9. memelo2:

    "For my part I would not display a symbol that is likely to offend others."

    While this sounds nice at first glance you should remember that there are many people in the world who would find the display of the USA's flag offensive. Would you stop showing it? Of course not...

    So this is actually not about not offending some generic "others". It is about which groups' feelings you will bow to, which group has the real world power to define their sensitivities as dominating public discourse.

  10. RaymondbyEllis:

    The swastika goes back about 12,000 years and predates the Hindus. It's a really simple yet elegant symbol, and usually meant something auspicious.

    Now it just represents evil. One more reason to hate the Nazis, as if there weren't enough already..

  11. xtmar:

    I think you could also see it as being respectful to the people around you, provided they're also reasonably civilized. It's like not blasting your speakers at 930 on a week night. Sure, you could do it until 10 when the noise ordinance kicks in, but unless you have a special reason, like a wedding, there is no reason to go out of your way to annoy other people.

  12. Hal Duston:

    Then there is this.

    Man with shotgun detained near Sumner County Courthouse. Yes, this is a black man with a shotgun waving a Confederate flag in front of a county courthouse in Tennessee.

  13. Orion Henderson:

    I quielty give the finger to anyone with a "I heart Obamacare" sticker on their car.

  14. skhpcola:

    I appreciate that they feel the desire to signal to society that they are retards by announcing the fact on their bumpers. Birdwatching would be easier if, instead of cheeping, cardinals would just say "cardinal." Leftists are helpful in that fashion.

  15. jimc5499:

    You display a symbol that offends others every time you leave your house, it's called your face. I'm not being a smart ass here. If you are male you offend some feminists, if you are white, you offend some minorities, if you are a minority , you offend some whites. It can go on and on. Some people are just safety-wired to the offended position. Those people offend me.

  16. memelo2:

    "It's like not blasting your speakers at 930 on a week night."

    But is it really? Is this not exactly what this whole thing is about: Is "showing the confederate [battle] flag" indeed just like "blasting your speakers" at night? It surely wasn't always so. And why is it now? And why is it okay to show a rainbow flag - that one is offensive to some people, too?

    See I am not making the case for showing the confederate flag everywhere all the time. My point is: This is not about a random group of people taking offense at some generic act they happened to stumble upon. It is about a very specific group of people who have for a while now campaigned towards making a very specific symbol generally be seen as offensive.

    Coyote described the flag as having been a symbol of identity. Ultimately now he lost a way (and is there even an alternate way?) to express this identity. And if this identity's long standing symbol is now a symbol of racism, is not the identity itself now one of racism - at least partly, which is enough, since racism is considered a binary thing (you either are or you are not a racist)?

    Look at the rainbow flag again. This one is also a symbol for an identity. And it shown exactly because it is offensive to some people. Go out and tell someone to not show their rainbow flag because they wouldn't blast their speakers at 930 on a week night either. See?

    Looking at this like not showing the conferedate flag is just general politeness requires that you have already accepted that it actually is mostly a symbol of racism.

  17. bigmaq1980:

    Remember when "gay" meant something else?

    The problem with the flag is that it cannot be unwound and separated in the minds of many from what is has become to mean ... battle flag or not. We can recognize that some don't see it that way. However, given what that battle was based on, it is forever tarnished.

    At the same time, free speech!

    There is an undercurrent with this and several other examples, where people seem to be seeking for the next marginal item to take offense on. Their success in this realm begets more offense on yet more things.

    And thus, speech and liberty degrade.

  18. Dimitri Mariutto:


    You just missed the the crown jewel on I-65 south of Nashville, a memorial to Nathan Bedford Forrest [part of early KKK] adjacent to the Interstate [https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8006/7317210074_9cb43067e4_z.jpg]

    I understand the land is owned by an older white lawyer who decided to establish this. Let me tell you, there was quite the brouhaha during the time it was being built.

    Link on Google Maps: [https://www.google.com/maps/place/Nathan+Bedford+Forrest+Equestrian+Statue/@36.0616946,-86.7713093,233m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m3!3m2!1s0x8864653b503185b9:0x6bb35af3c5a3b83d!4b1]

  19. xtmar:

    It surely wasn't always so. And why is it now? And why is it okay to show a rainbow flag - that one is offensive to some people, too?

    Social mores change, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, but to ignore them doesn't seem like a winning move.

    As is pointed out down thread, the sharp swastika (as opposed to the loopier design that you could still see on some '60s record covers) was forever tarnished by its associations with the Nazis, even though it has a long history of prior use, and is in fact a pretty good geometric pattern. Nonetheless, because society's perception of history (and Nazis) has changed, so to has the symbolism of it.

  20. memelo2:

    But you can point exactly to when, where, why and by whom the swastika symbol was forever tarnished. What happened to the confederate flag though between 1980 and 2015? And who did it? Why was it necessary? How was it achieved?

    Ignoring this change now is surely not a winning move, but the change itself already produced losers: the people who see their identity tarnished.

  21. xtmar:

    but the change itself already produced losers: the people who see their identity tarnished.

    I agree now that it's changed, the best option is to adapt.

    What happened to the confederate flag though between 1980 and 2015?

    Without dedicating too much time and effort to it, social and racial activists came into more important positions in terms of setting social mores, and emphasized the association of the flag with slavery, rather than with the South as a more general concept, thus turning it into a pariah symbol for most people.

    In some ways, it's rather like Scalia's (?) question about when banning gay marriage became unconstitutional. There isn't a definite point, but nonetheless social mores changed enough that legalizing same sex marriage is now the plurality position, rather than the minority position it was before.

  22. SamWah:

    I believe that's what Warren was saying above--let them self-identify themselves.

  23. Guest:

    This one?

  24. Heil Hitler!:

    This one ???

  25. Heil Hitler!:

    I like symbols...

  26. Heil Hitler!:

    I love the Stars and Bars!

  27. Heil Hitler!:

    I'm a German invader, pull up a burning cross, stay a while...

  28. Heil Hitler!:

    Russian Rebel flag...

  29. FelineCannonball:

    The legal question in this case is whether a license plate is state speech or individual speech or in part both. If it was just the latter, there would be no problem with it, but as the state has set up a system for officially approving/disapproving of each particular design (and manufacturing it), the state's judgement is clearly reflected in a license plate. If they really do allow all-comers however obscene or profane or racist or satanist it would be one thing, but they set themselves up as gate-keepers and the speech is in part a reflection of their judgment and their freedom of speech (which could go either way on this one).

    My advice. Get a bumper sticker and don't waste the court's time.

  30. Nimrod:

    At this point I wouldn't be surprised if we started seeing personalized plates with Al raya (the jihadi flag) on them. If any state has a problem with this then they will get accused of being "racist" even though the raya is itself clearly a "racist" (Islamic supremacist anyway) symbol that very clearly supports slavery under Islamic military jurisprudence.

    We're already seeing this problem with advertisements on city buses where pro-Hamas, anti-Israel ads are allowed without question but anti-Hamas, anti-jihad ads universally require winning a lawsuit in each city in order for them to get posted.

    So expect the censorship and lack thereof to get even more ridiculous in the future.

  31. Magua1952:

    Because some people rejoice in ignorance is not a reason to put away one's flag. A similar case is that of the lawn jockeys. That is fun to google and learn.

  32. Donald:

    head farther south to Tampa....I75 I4 intersection SW corner so to speak. Bing maps

  33. donald:

    Out of curiosity, if I ran a campaign to say that SUV's were to blame for the impending death of our world, could I not see to it that you are shamed into getting rid of your SUV to trade in for a Prius, or better yet a Volt? now that the opinion has changed, should we all not just embrace the FACT that your SUV is to blame for global warming. I mean it's settled, there's a consensus right? So now that the moral opinion, pushed by a relative few, has made it's judgment on your choice of vehicle, you should embrace it or adapt?
    Problem here is that there is an opinion of what is good judgment, and perhaps it is best not to display the flag. Hitler forever ruined any normal man's attempt to grow a toothbrush mustache without appearing to be a white supremist. But you can't say that a person should not or could not grow one. Or display a flag. In this country (supposedly) personal freedom trumps mob rule. you can't be offended by me and force me to change. I believe that some people, whether in good taste or not, are flying the flag just to say FU you can't make me feel or believe something that I don't. and it may or may not have anything to do with racism. that rabbit hole of that debate is problematic in that one side of the debate is typically blind to the fact that the door swings wide and in both directions.
    If I could afford it, I would drive a tank with a sign on it saying 10 gallons to the mile to drop my kid off at school. Not only would he be the coolest kid in the world, but the liberal global warming idiots would possibly die of a coronary. Would I drive it because I believe in war? Because I believe in the right to bear really big arms? or possibly is it to say FU to anyone in a chevy Volt.

  34. bigmaq1980:

    What draws the line between what is polite and civil "speech" and what is "in your face" and "offensive" seems to have been obliterated in recent years.

    Some want to be deliberately provocative. Others seem to seek offense in anything possible.

    Can we even, as individuals, come up with an objective means to determining where that line is?

    Free speech is what it is, and we ought to defend this case.

    However, like it or not, fair or not, there are consequences to adopting a symbol that has a questionable association and response.

    Those who hang their hat on the Southern Battle Flag to make a personal statement had better do so knowing they risk getting lumped together with those who would aim to make offense and who are on board with its conflation with the Confederates, and the baggage that carrys, even if it is in "rejoice(ful) ignorance".

    Is it really any different than the people who get sizable, visible tatoos, but complain that it shouldn't "unfairly disqualify" them for some types of jobs? There are consequences.

  35. Nehemiah:

    Actually what happened to the confederate flag since 1980, is the formation of the "grievance/victimization" industry. Women, blacks, Hispanics, native Americans, homosexuals, you name it. So long as you are not a white male, you have reason to gripe.

  36. mx:

    Yes, you have the right to behave like an asshole. But if you routinely exercise that right for funsies, you're not celebrating our country's robust tradition of personal freedom; you're just being an asshole.

  37. obeara:

    It is a beautiful design. I am not a born southerner, but I like the flag very much. I also like the Japanese battle flag that I saw today in a UK Daily Mail article about the Japanese launching an aircraft carrier. The UK flag is also a great design, and I don't know any Irish who can't take seeing it even though the English have an ugly history there. So, to those who swoon or rage when they see the South's battle flag, I say get over it. Remember you won, if you must dwell on the past. And a second comment is that if people give up the South's flag because some see it as racist, don't give in or it will make that the meaning, and the only meaning of the flag. My father was interested in history, and although an Irishman, and living in the northeast, he always called it The War Between The States, because for many that is what it was. State's rights.

  38. Magua1952:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments.
    The Southern battle flag was a symbol of resistance against tyranny and overwhelming odds. The flag originated in Scotland many years before the Southern confederacy. Some believe anyone who honors this flag is the spawn of Hitler and Stalin. The overwhelming majority of Southerners had no slaves. In fact, they despised the lowland plantation lords. They were forced to ally with them against an enemy who invaded their lands, burned homes and farms, raped the women and destroyed property. Worst of all were the camp followers, the scum of humanity.
    In World War II the United States allied with Stalin to defeat Hitler. It doesn't follow that America, and the Stars and Stripes, represents the totalitarianism of Stalin along with his mass murders. Some Germans and Japanese regard the United States flag as a symbol of mass murder. They cite Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki..
    I won't apologize for waiving the battle flag. Those who despise our flag are not worthy of acknowledgement or respect. If ignorant people despise the flag, who cares what these idiots think.

  39. c_andrew:

    I cut off their foot for $30,000.00!
    (Anybody else remember that fatuity from His Travesty King Obama?)

  40. Curtis:

    giant FU.

  41. Zachriel:

    Magua: The overwhelming majority of Southerners had no slaves. In fact, they despised the lowland plantation lords. They were forced to ally with them against an enemy who invaded their lands, burned homes and farms, raped the women and destroyed property.

    If what you mean is that they were duped into helping rich slaveowners in an attempt to keep their slaves, then sure. In any case, they should abandon the battle flag as promised under terms of the surrender.

  42. Magua1952:

    If the North never invaded the South there would have been no alliance with the rich slave owners. The Civil War has been caricatured as a war to free the slaves (lipstick on a pig). There were lots of reasons for the war, including the slavery issue. It was frankly a tragic waste of lives and resources. Other nations managed to end slavery minus the gruesome bloodletting.
    The battle flag was proudly displayed in all the American wars following the Civil War, at least through Vietnam. Exceptions might be the actions where no Southerners were present. There were probably few actions where Southerners were not present. Don't know about the recent adventures in the Middle East in the days of political correctness.

  43. Kimo:

    If people want to put a racist interpretation on the flag, that's their problem. What we are looking at here is cultural oppression of the South by the Left. There is no racism in the flag other than people who are trying to read into that into the Southern national flag.

  44. Zachriel:

    Magua1952: There were lots of reasons for the war, including the slavery issue.

    The elected legislatures in the South made clear that slavery was the motivating issue for secession.

  45. Maquis:

    "Its is fine to want to eliminate evil from the Earth, but shilling
    hateful speech doesn't do this -- it only drives evil underground."

    Not to be a smarta$$, Brother, but 'shilling' actually means to promote something, not suppress it. Great post though.

  46. Lawrence Karch:

    People could just as well put a bumper sticker of the Confederate Flag on their car and they do.
    Don't need no stinkin Texas license plate!

  47. obloodyhell:

    Exactly. We went from being slightly PC oriented (which I think wasn't fully unreasonable) into Miz Grundy's Diktat.

    (Excepting the classical Miz Grundy would be horrified to think of what was being done in her name).