The Confederate Flag: Symbol of Opposition to Civil Rights

Local residents watch Selma-to-Montgomery March. By Matt Herron/Take Stock.
Local residents watch the Selma-to-Montgomery March. By Matt Herron.

The Confederate flag, best known as a symbol of white supremacy during the Civil War, was also a symbol of state resistance to human rights and democracy during the modern Civil Rights Movement.

As Civil Rights Movement photographer Matt Herron explains,

Southerners who believed in racial segregation displayed Confederate flags instead of the American flag. People were pulled from their cars by policemen and beaten simply for displaying a American flag.

Herron witnessed this personally when he saw a highway patrolman forcibly remove the U.S. flag from the grip of 5-year-old Anthony Quinn. Quinn and his mother were participating in a protest of voting rights violations and police brutality at the Jackson, Mississippi courthouse on June 17, 1965.

Photo by Matt Herron/Take Stock Photos. Click to learn more.
Photo by Matt Herron/Take Stock Photos. Click to learn more.

SNCC activist Dorie Ladner carried the U.S. flag as an act of resistance at the memorial for the four girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. In an interview with Teaching for Change she explained,

I am not a fan of the wars that have been waged in the name of the American flag and I’ve spent a lifetime agitating for the federal government to defend human and civil rights in the U.S., so many people wonder why I was carrying the American flag in the iconic photo of the memorial at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Dorie Ladner at the funeral of children murdered in Birmingham, September, 1963. Photo by John Kouns.
Dorie Ladner at the funeral of children murdered in Birmingham, September, 1963. Photo by John Kouns.

It is important to understand that in Birmingham in 1963, Gov. George Wallace was flying the Confederate flag in defiance of President Kennedy’s calls for integration. The federalized Alabama National Guard wore the Dixie flags on their uniforms. I come from the state of Mississippi where the state government did not recognize the American flag. Alabama had the same mindset.

The Confederate flag represented state resistance to the rights of African Americans and indicated that the state upheld the atrocities, including the destruction of a place of worship and the murder of the four little girls and others.

Engulfed by atrocities and by state resistance, the American flag was the only symbol I could carry to express my sorrow and anger and to remind Alabama that it was part of the United States. The least I could do was to show that there is a federal government.

I borrowed the flag from Rev. Ed King, chaplain at Tougaloo College. I decided to carry the flag as a message. I knew that I was at risk for carrying it due to the climate there and the lack of visibility of the American flag.

I knew they would not like it. I knew that waving the American flag would make them uncomfortable. That was my intention.

It is ironic that now those same conservatives have cloaked themselves in the American flag while still carrying their same beliefs. The American flag became popular with the conservatives when Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for president in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They are holding onto the Confederate flag and call themselves patriots with the American flag.