Truth Behind Confederate Symbolism

Confederate flags were taken down on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol. New secessionists push back claiming heritage, but is that it?

In commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the murder of nine worshippers at Emmanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, S.C., hundreds marched from nearby Marion Park to the steps of the church. If the John C. Calhoun statue in the park could have come to life, the old man undoubtedly would have been appalled by the march and its cause.

Calhoun was an advocate for slavery and secession. Historian James Loewen said that Calhoun called America’s original sin “a positive good” for which black people were well-suited because they  were “low, degraded, and savage.” His arguments undoubtedly paved the way for the Confederacy and ultimately, the Civil War therefore. Which brings us to the South Carolina Secessionist Party (SCSP). Maybe you’ve never heard of it. But take note: The SCSP is pushing back against the decision of Gov. Nikki Haley to take down the Confederate flag – the flag that has symbolized the systemic oppression of black people in the U.S. for over a century – with something it’s calling “Operation Retaliation.”

The New South

From its fundraising post on its Facebook page: “The South Carolina Secessionist Party is launching a campaign to raise Confederate battle flags across the state of South Carolina in honor of our Confederate ancestors who sacrificed all in service to our state. Following the example of The Virginia Flaggers, we hope to be able to dot South Carolina with the proud symbol of our Confederate forebears [sic].” As of August 2, the SCSP had 8,765 likes on Facebook.

Abel Bartley
Fighting the same arguments as we did a hundred years ago, Clemson’s Abel Bartley believes we have much to do in the debate over heritage and the confederate narrative.

“People in the South have not moved as far as we thought they’d move,” Dr. Abel Bartley told Message. Bartley is the director of the Pan African Studies program at Clemson University. “We’re fighting the same arguments we were fighting a hundred years ago,” Bartley continued. “It tells you we have not made the progress that we’d thought we’d made.”

With each flag the SCSP seeks to plant in South Carolina soil, it sides with a government that was discredited on the battlefield and in the nation’s conscience. It honors a hateful ideology based on the premise that one group of people had the right to own other human beings.

Original Intent

Representatives of South Carolinians made this quite clear in the state’s secession declaration in the Spring of 1852:

“Each state was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

“We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume(d) the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

The point of secession and the formation of the Confederacy was clear. The SCSP maintains that their ancestors were acting honorably. Dr. Abel Bartley begs to differ.

“They wanted to hold on to slavery,” he said. “Don’t tell me that it’s about heritage. It is about heritage: the heritage of holding slaves.”

Behind the symbols

Bartley teaches his Clemson students that their state’s 19th century economy was built on slavery. According to his research, there were 402,406 slaves in South Carolina in 1860 – 57.2 percent of the population. Their value would have been about $300 million. The estimated value of all South Carolina real estate and personal property was slightly more than $548 million. So more than half the value of all property owned by whites in the state were slaves – whose value more than doubled that of all the farms in the state ($139.7 million).

“The number one investment the South had was their investment in slaves,” Bartley said. “More than their property, more than their buildings, more than anything else.”

Historic data makes the case against neo-Confederates and modern secessionists – and against their favorite symbol. “Groups that tend to support the Confederate flag and organizations that use the Confederate flag – if you listen to their rhetoric – they feed you a lot of stuff that’s not truth,” Bartley said.

  1. “When you look at what people have done under the banner of that flag, what they’ve defended under the banner of that flag, there’s no way in the world as a Christian you can support it or fly it.”


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