Confederate battle flag has long, complicated history

Confederate battle flag has long, complicated history
First Official Flag of the Confederacy
First Official Flag of the Confederacy
Second Official Flag of the Confederacy
Second Official Flag of the Confederacy
Confederate Navy Jack, most used flag as current symbol of the South
Confederate Navy Jack, most used flag as current symbol of the South
Martin Kuhlman, West Texas A&M University history professor
Martin Kuhlman, West Texas A&M University history professor

By John Kanelis

Martin Kuhlman knows history.

He's lived through a good bit of and what he hasn't experienced personally, he's studied it to the hilt.

The Confederate battle flag has been in the news lately and it has drawn its share of criticism and praise. Ask this West Texas A&M University history professor what he knows about the battle flag and you're going to get a lecture.

Indeed, that's what he's been doing at WT for the past 21 years: lecturing on antebellum history, the Civil War itself, the battle flag and its various meanings, incarnations and interpretations.

Kuhlman will tell you it's a complicated subject, but it's one that he relishes.

The flag that was lowered recently from the South Carolina statehouse grounds in Columbia – as part of the aftershock of the hideous massacre at the Charleston, S.C., church in which nine African-Americans were gunned down by a white assassin – isn't even the original battle flag, said Kuhlman.

What's become known as the Stars and Bars actually is a misnomer. The Stars and Bars flag, adopted in March 1861, contained seven stars denoting the first seven Dixie states to secede from the Union; Texas was the final of the original seven states to join the Confederate States of America, leaving the Union on Feb. 1, 1861.

"It looked vaguely like the Union flag," Kuhlman said of the Stars and Bars, "and that caused some confusion on the battlefield" as troops carrying the Stars and Bars might have been mistaken for Union soldiers.

The design "that everyone now knows" was crafted in 1863, he said.

Then came another design, which included the commonly known Confederate battle flag emblem on a white field. "But that looked too much like a white flag of surrender," Kuhlman said. So the Confederate States of America added a red bar along the outer edge of the flag to differentiate it a little more.

Kuhlman understands in great detail what the flag means to many white Southerners as well as to African-Americans.

Indeed, Kuhlman – a Canyon native who earned his undergraduate and master's degrees at West Texas State University, before earning his doctorate in history at Texas Tech University – recalls a time at WT when waving the battle flag in public raised more than a few hackles.

A WT fraternity, Kappa Alpha, used to fly the battle flag at rallies. Its members would dress up in Confederate military uniforms once a year and "secede from the university for a day," Kuhlman said. It was all in good-natured fun, he said, and the university administration went along with it.

The fraternity's display of the flag had more than a touch of irony at athletic events, Kuhlman remembered. He recalled WT football games in which the great running back Eugene "Mercury" Morris – an African-American – would score a touchdown and celebrate the score in the end zone with the KA fraternity members waving the battle flag in the stands.

Then some students began to object to the flag.

Kuhlman, who wrote a book noting the centennial of WT's founding, writes in his book about controversies that developed between black students and the Kappa Alpha fraternity. The Committee to Reduce Interracial Tensions was created in the late 1960s. "KA president Dick Flynn … argued the fraternity should not be forced to give up its right to fly the flag," Kuhlman writes in his book. "CRIT members agreed that the fraternity had the right to fly the flag, but that doing so might not be the best thing to do. Reluctantly, the fraternity agreed to stop flying the flag at athletic events."

Kuhlman said he "grew up with 'Gone With the Wind,' plantations and all that crap. But I soon came to realize that the South was built on the backs of slaves."

He began studying the civil rights issue and delivered his doctoral dissertation at Texas Tech on the Texas civil rights movement.

"I began to see the reality of the old South and saw through the façade of the mint julips and plantations," he said. "We had slaves in the South."

It all depends on perspective, Kuhlman said. "Everyone will have their viewpoint about what the battle flag means. Some people will see the flag as keeping millions of people in bondage. Others will see it as a symbol of states' rights."

Kuhlman said he also began to understand that the twin issues of states' rights and slavery were related. "Yes, the South wanted to preserve states' rights," he said, "but one of those rights they wanted preserved was the right for the states to decide whether to allow slave ownership."

The Confederate battle flag, he said, has come to represent that ideal in many people's eyes.

"I certainly understand the 'heritage' argument," Kuhlman said, but he added that "flying the (battle) flag at courthouses and statehouses was meant to protest the civil rights movement."

The Mississippi state flag, which includes a battle flag emblem, was designed in 1956 to protest the Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board of Education two years earlier striking down the "separate but equal" provision that kept public schools racially segregated. Kuhlman said that he's heard that a Mississippi lawmaker wants that state's flag redesigned because "it's become identified with the Ku Klux Klan."

He noted further that because Germany has outlawed the flying of the swastika, neo-Nazis in that country often fly the Confederate battle flag in place of the hated Nazi symbol dating back to the Third Reich and all that it represents.

Kuhlman also noted that secession – associated most commonly with Southern states leaving the Union just before the start of the Civil War – actually was threatened by several Northern states to protest the Louisiana Purchase, which was consummated in 1803 during the Jefferson administration. Many New England states "didn't like the fact that the nation was acquiring so much farm land," Kuhlman said.

"It wasn't a real big movement," he said.

Kuhlman said states' rights and slavery are linked, which he said muddies up the debate over what the Confederate battle flag represents.

Those two issues, he said, "are somewhat related."