If there was one thing I did not expect to make an appearance in my blue-state neighborhood during the COVID-19 pandemic it was the Confederate flag. There it was, however, unmistakably adorning the front of a neighbor’s house. Thankfully, this unwelcome visitor stayed only for the weekend. As suddenly as it appeared, it was gone.
As a historian the sight of the Confederate flag hanging in any capacity other than as a relic in a museum is disturbing. To see it on display in my suburban neighborhood set off a maelstrom of questions in my mind, the most obvious being: what exactly are my neighbors seeking to express with such a display? I am not personally acquainted with these neighbors and have no knowledge of any specific connection they might have to the Confederacy. The fact that the flag appeared for the first time this past weekend leads me to assume that they were expressing frustration over the slow process of re-opening our state’s economy in the wake of the current pandemic. A quick Google search finds numerous examples of people protesting the COVID-19 business shut downs by symbolically embracing the flag of the Confederacy: protesters in Wisconsin displayed the flag at anti-quarantine rallies as did those in Ohio and Michigan.
I live in Massachusetts where we have a very popular Republican governor, Charlie Baker, and are represented in the Senate by one of that body’s most liberal Democrats, Elizabeth Warren. And yet, even here in notoriously liberal Massachusetts -- home to some of the most prominent hospitals and universities in the world -- there are people paying homage to the racist sentiments of the old-time South while claiming to argue for their personal “rights.”
I teach my students that the sight of the Confederate flag should immediately conjure up images of slavery, discrimination, and violence. In class we discuss the historical connections between Confederate veterans and the origins of the Ku Klux Klan. In 2020, however, white Americans in cities and towns across the country are clinging to the flag as symbolic of their violated rights -- as if being required to wear a cotton face mask into the grocery store can in any way be compared to the conditions that led to the American Civil War.
As historians it is our duty to ensure that students truly understand the meanings of these symbols from the past and do not accept reinterpretations to fit modern-day circumstances. Just this week we have witnessed a horrifying example of police brutality that reveals to us, once again, that our national history of racism is, in fact, not in the past. Coming on the heels of Ahmaud Arbery’s senseless murder in Georgia earlier this month, the death of George Floyd at the hands of white Minnesota police officers reminds us again, painfully, that racism in the United States is not a past or historical topic: it continues today to plague our cities and towns North, South, East, and West.
We, as history teachers, must ensure that our curriculum makes it abundantly clear to students that racism and racially-based violence are not topics to be relegated to the month of February. When today’s students see news coverage of protesters embracing the flag of the Confederacy to express their pandemic-related economic frustrations, they must immediately recognize that the choice to display such a flag represents more than anger about face masks and stay-at-home orders. One hundred and sixty years after the birth of the Confederacy, the flag still represents ignorance and racism.