For a brief moment last year, it seemed like anti-Confederate activism was making institutional pushes against Confederate symbolism in southern state governments. But it was just a moment. It is now raging back, led by Alabama and Mississippi.
That attack produced widespread outrage about the battle flag’s prominence and helped lead to its lowering at South Carolina’s Statehouse. A handful of Mississippi cities refused to fly the state’s flag, the only one in the country with the disputed emblem, and the speaker of the State House of Representatives urged a redesign. Confederate symbols were removed from public view. Retailers like Walmart stopped selling battle flag merchandise.
This year, legislators in at least 12 states have considered measures about how the Confederacy should be recognized. In some of those states, lawmakers sought to curb reminders of Confederate history, but there have also been bills, like proposals that advanced in Alabama and Tennessee, to offer new safeguards for controversial monuments and memorials.
“When the governor did what he did, it just punctuated the fact that we can’t erase history, we can’t whitewash it or push it under the carpet like it never happened,” said State Senator Gerald Allen of Alabama, whose bill would prohibit many monuments from being “relocated, removed, altered, renamed or otherwise disturbed” without a legislative committee’s approval.
Mr. Allen, a Republican, said, “It’s important that we tell the story of what has happened in this country because that’s what shaped and molded us as a nation.”
Recognition of the Confederacy is widespread. The Southern Poverty Law Center will conclude in a forthcoming report that there are at least 1,170 publicly funded Confederate symbols across the country.
Although critics of Confederate symbols were encouraged by their victories last year, people on both sides of the debate said few other significant changes appeared imminent. They said that political pressure in favor of traditional Southern imagery had outlasted the shock associated with the Charleston killings, for which Dylann Roof will stand trial this summer.
“I don’t think it was a false momentum,” said State Representative Justin T. Bamberg of South Carolina, a Democrat. “You had an awakening of society in 2015, but an awakening in and of itself doesn’t mean action.”
The actions that did materialize, though, emboldened defenders of Confederate heritage displays.
“The rush to get rid of all Southern stuff in a day or a month or a week or whatever it was, it was sobering for a lot of people,” said Greg Stewart, the executive director of Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’s last home, and a supporter of keeping the battle emblem on the Mississippi flag. “Our strength right now is the result of their overreach.”
By “overreach,” of course he means “effective activism.” It is however disappointing that Bree Newsome going up the flagpole was not the beginning of a movement but rather its peak, with attention quickly distracted elsewhere. The fight against Confederate nostalgia that serves white supremacy needs to be a never-ending fight, with very specific goals of ending state support of these symbols.