The Sorry Tale About When and How the CSA Flag Flew Over the SC Capitol

CSA battle flag Most people on social media are repeating the point that the CSA Battle Flag first flew over the South Carolina Capitol in 1962, in reaction to the modern civil rights movement – and that’s true, to a certain extent.  Another story, reported in 1999, is the result of an interview with the only surviving member of the South Carolina Civil War Centennial Commission, and his recollections add another layer of trouble for the defenders of the flag of rebellion.

The story begins on December 7, 1960 when President Dwight Eisenhower signed Proclamation 3382, implementing the national Civil War Centennial plans authorized by a September 7, 1957  joint resolution in Congress which established the Civil War Centennial Commission, “to prepare plans and programs for the nationwide observances of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Civil War, and requested the President to issue proclamations inviting the people of the United States to participate in those observances.” [UCSB]

The timing for a successful, and educational, centennial celebration, such as the retired commander of the Allied forces in WWII had in mind, couldn’t have been much worse.  The Supreme Court set its precedent in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education in 1954.  Emmett Till was murdered on August 28, 1955.  Rosa Parks’ experience on a Montgomery city bus sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott which ended in a victory for civil rights advocates on December 21, 1956.  On September 24, 1957 federal troops were mobilized to protect nine African American children at Little Rock Central High School. In 1960 a lunch counter sit-in by four college students in Greensboro, NC inspired other sit-ins throughout the southern U.S. The modern civil rights movement already had a focus and a national following.

Meanwhile in South Carolina, Governor Fritz Hollings was appointing members to the state’s Civil War Centennial Commission.  One of those was Daniel Hollis, “I’m the only one on the commission left alive,” Hollis said in an August interview. “I tried to get them to call it the `Civil War Centennial,’ but they insisted on calling it the `Confederate War Centennial.‘ [SCPro]  Professor Hollis’s experience wasn’t confined to South Carolina.  There was controversy in Virginia as well:

“Despite the impressive props and setting, the centennial commemoration faced awkward challenges. The events began as Virginia’s elected officials and largest newspapers continued to fight against the Supreme Court and the federal government. Massive resistance shut down schools in several districts between 1956 and 1959 rather than allow black children go to school with white children. The early centennial events in Virginia invoked states’ rights even as they celebrated reunification of the nation.” [SSpaces]

The divisions came early and with intensity.  While northern States tended to focus on the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, southern ones tended to emphasize the “Southern Way of Life,” with battle field reenactments, and promote the notion that Jim Crow and Segregation were an organic part of Southern heritage.

Northern VA battle flag Merchandizing also played a role.  Entrepreneurs “had a field day.” “The Confederate flag became a design for both beach towels and women’s lingerie. Toys of every kind, intended for children of all ages, hit an eager market. Printed works and films made a mockery of history.” [Robertson] The merchandizing was important because prior to 1957 segregationists used a variety of emblems and symbols, but by the late 1950’s they had settled on a modified version of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia as the preferred banner. It was this modified banner which was raised in many southern centennial celebrations, including those in South Carolina.  We should note the differences between the modified battle flag (first flag graphic) and the original ANVA flag. If comparable to anything, the modified flag was actually closer to the Army of Tennessee battle flag. [MOC]

South Carolina launched its version of the Centennial Celebration on April 11, 1961 to commemorate the attack on Fort Sumter. As the celebrations began, the modified battle flag was hauled up over the South Carolina State Capitol. [SCPro]

Professor Hollis explained how the flag went up and stayed up:

“The flag is being flown this week at the request of Aiken Rep. John A. May,” reported The State on April 12. May didn’t introduce his resolution until the next legislative session. By the time the resolution passed on March 16, 1962, the flag had been flying for nearly a year. (This explains why the flag is often erroneously reported to have gone up in 1962).

“May told us he was going to introduce a resolution to fly the flag for a year from the capitol. I was against the flag going up,” Hollis said, “but I kept quiet and went along. I didn’t want to get into it with the UDC girls.” The resolution that passed didn’t include a time for the flag to come down and, therefore, “it just stayed up,” Hollis said. “Nobody raised a question.” [SCPro]   (*UDC, United Daughters of the Confederacy)

Thus, the flag went up and stayed up, and nobody raised questions as the state of South Carolina tried desperately to sustain the institutional racism of the “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman era.

The “modified battle flag” which went up as part of the opening ceremonies of the “Confederate War Centennial” as it was known in South Carolina on April 11, 1961,  stayed up during South Carolina’s opposition to the modern civil rights movement, and became the focal point for its own battle in 2000.

After vociferous criticism concerning the flag on the Capitol, the South Carolina legislature passed the South Carolina Heritage Act:

The South Carolina Heritage Act of 2000 stipulated that the Confederate flag would be removed from the capitol dome itself, but would be flown nearby at the Confederate Soldiers’ Monument, on the Statehouse grounds. It’s literally locked into place—State Representative Leon Howard told TIME that that the flag is padlocked to the flagpole to prevent tampering or removal. [Time]

The very fact that the banner is padlocked to the pole says that there must be a goodly number of South Carolinians who would like very much to “tamper” or “remove” the offensive flag.  Those who are comforted by the pad lock might  not want to know that far from being a “traditional” CSA flag (as characterized in a number of Internet sources), of a design dating back to the failed attempt at secession, the “heritage” flag being celebrated is as artificial as the ideas it purports to symbolize.

The modified flag went up to celebrate the opening salvos of the American Civil War, and stayed up because no one in authority wanted to take it down, even as southern enthusiasm for the Centennial celebrations evaporated while the calendar flicked down to southern defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg (1863), and Sherman’s march through Georgia (1864); nor could there have been much enthusiasm from the UDC ladies for reminding anyone of Sherman’s march into South Carolina in February 1865. The UDC and similar CSA related organizations would not have had any stomach for commemorations of Lee’s surrender.

In the end, South Carolinians were left with the flotsam of Centennial merchandizing schemes, grafted into display form on beach towels, lingerie, decals, and toys, and hoisted up a flag pole to  commemorate the unthinkable.  And, there it remains —

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