The murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist last week has touched off a national conversation about the Confederate flag. Widely considered to be a symbol of hate, the flag can be seen in photos of confessed shooter Dylann Roof and flying near several government buildings in the South. In the wake of the Charleston massacre, the Republican governors of South Carolina and Alabama have called for the removal of the Confederate flags from their statehouse grounds (Alabama’s flags were removed Wednesday), and retailers including Walmart, Amazon, Sears and eBay have banned the sale of Confederate flag merchandise.
For flag scholar John M. Hartvigsen, the strong feelings stirred up by this issue make sense. “Flags are, by their nature, very emotionally charged,” he tells Rolling Stone. “And emotions are running high on this right now.”
Hartvigsen, who lives in Utah, is president of the North American Vexillological Association – vexillology being the scholarly study of flags – and he can’t help pointing out that the banner at the center of today’s news isn’t even a proper Confederate flag. “I study flags, so I’m a nitpicker,” Hartvigsen says. In fact, he notes, the primary flag used by the Confederacy was the so-called “Stars and Bars,” which resembles an American flag with fewer stripes – not the emblem widely circulated by white supremacists and Southern nostalgists in later years. “What we’re calling the Confederate flag, the rectangular one, really wasn’t flown during the Civil War except on a few naval vessels,” he says. “It was picked up by some veterans’ groups after the war, and then used by the Ku Klux Klan.”
In 1961, the South Carolina legislature gave that ersatz rectangular flag – the one the Klan favored – a place on the state capitol’s dome, in an open act of disrespect masked as a gesture to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War. It wasn’t until nearly 40 years later, in 2000, that South Carolina moved to take that flag down and put up the square version that currently features in a war memorial near the statehouse. That square flag is, in fact, an authentic battle flag used by several Confederate regiments during the Civil War. But once again, Hartvigsen has a bone to pick with the uninformed. “As a vexillologist, I’d say the battle flag doesn’t belong there,” says Hartvigsen. “It was never flown on a stationary pole. It was carried into battle by soldiers.”
“So that’s a little strange,” he adds. “And now it’s come back to haunt them.”
Hartvigsen draws a contrast between the tangled history of Confederate imagery in this country and the decisive way Germans rejected the Nazi flag after 1945. “[World War II] changed the attitude in Germany towards flags,” he says. “The flag of the Third Reich became illegal to display. And even in recent times, they just don’t use flags the same way we do in the United States – even the current flag of the Republic of Germany.”
For all the pain stirred up by the flag this month, Hartvigsen sees some hopeful signs in the fact that these issues are being openly discussed. “Look at the difference in how we’re reacting to this now, rather than the way it was during the days of the struggle over civil rights,” he says. “Back then, you had a church bombed and four black little girls were killed – and white Southerners were not that upset about it. Today, look at how we’ve come together. That’s progress.”