When Anti-Racists Adopted the Confederate Battle Flag

Beyond heritage and hate


This is my favorite picture of a Confederate flag:

Like 'The South's Gonna Do It' mashed up with 'Ebony and Ivory.'
Southern Student Organizing Committee

That was the emblem of the Southern Student Organizing Committee, a New Left group founded in 1964. At a time when the activists most likely to be waving a Confederate banner were affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan, SSOC decided to adopt—and adapt—the battle flag for the other side of the civil rights struggle. The group did most of its organizing among southern whites, and it went out of its way to draw on regional iconography: Its newsletter was called The New Rebel, its founding manifesto was called "We'll Take Our Stand," and its logo…well, you saw its logo. In Gregg Michel's history of the organization, Struggle for a Better South, a former member says the group was "constantly studying Southern history, looking for antecedents that would satisfy a need for rootedness."

The symbol got mixed reviews on the other side of the color line. The graphic had actually been designed by a black man, Claude Weaver of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and the chairman of Weaver's group, John Lewis, gamely posed for this picture with SSOC's Archie Allen, reenacting the logo for the camera:

Listen, Yankee!
Palgrave Macmillan

But not everyone in the movement thought the emblem was a good idea. "Explaining to their white counterparts that the battleflag had only one meaning to them," Michel writes, several "black activists stressed that no matter how SSOC altered the flag's image, African Americans forever would see it as a symbol of racial oppression." SSOC was predominantly white, but it wanted to become the biracial alliance implied by those clasped hands. And so it dropped both the emblem and the name New Rebel at the end of 1964.

Yet the group wasn't finished with the idea. In 1967 it brought the emblem back, and its members started flirting with other Confederate symbols as well. Protesting Richard Nixon's inauguration in 1969, a bunch of them carried a banner identifying themselves as the "Southern Liberation Front"; Michel reports that they "led rebel charges and let loose with rebel yells" and then "gathered, symbolically, in Sherman Square." Meanwhile,

What if they gave a Civil War and no one came?
Southern Student Organizing Committee

talk of rebellion and secession crept into [the] group's publications and the activists' conversations and speeches. SSOC invoked these historically portentous terms both to connect with their forebears and to symbolize the drastic, all-transforming changes they envisioned for the South. Although the activists did not actually contemplate a day when the South once again would secede or rebel, they knew that their ironic use of these terms would give added weight to their cause. As Tom Gardner recollects, "we started promoting kind of a positive view of being rebellious, a 'rebel' of a different kind, a rebel against racism, a rebel against the war."…

Secession was a particularly useful concept for conveying SSOC's opposition to the Vietnam War. In the words of a SSOC-affiliated group in North Carolina, southern students should secede from "the oppression that our country is practicing in Vietnam by SECEDING from the SSS [selective servive system] or…pressuring school administrations to SECEDE from the military-industrial complex by dropping ROTC, Defense contracts, and selling their stock in war industries."

The maze of symbols got even twistier when the group started invoking the legend of the Republic of Winston, an Alabama stronghold of anti-war and anti-slavery sentiment that supposedly seceded from the Confederacy. Here was a sort of separatism the whole movement could get behind.

By that time, SSOC wasn't the only New Left group playing with Confederate signifiers. The Young Patriots were a Chicago-based organization made up mostly of working-class whites who had migrated to the city from the Appalachians; the Patriots joined the Black Panthers and the Young Lords (a Panther-like Puerto Rican group) in an partnership called the Rainbow Coalition. (This was unrelated to Jesse Jackson's outfit, which was launched much later.) "In a decade when symbolism mattered like never before, most Left groups chose their radical dress code—whether the dignified suits of civil rights leaders or the sleek leather jackets of the Panthers—to consciously send a message," Amy Sonnie and James Tracy write in Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power. "For better or worse, the Patriots adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of southern poor people's revolt against the owning class."

If that ain't country, it's a damn good joke.
The Patriot

"From historical experience, we know that the people make the meaning of a flag," they wrote in their newspaper. "This time we mean to see that the spirit of rebellion finds and smashes the real enemy rather than our brothers and sisters in oppression."

Unafraid to ruffle a few feathers, the choice of the Confederate flag also raised a blatant middle finger to the student Left. Most Patriots took pride in their ability to rattle the cage of middle-class politeness. They also needed a radical uniform they could actually afford. Flag patches were cheap from the local military surplus store and sewing them onto jean jackets and berets seemed easy enough. As the Patriots sat around discussing their options, Panther Bob Lee weighed in with his full blessing so long as members were up for all the explaining they would have to do. Lee even spent his first three weeks breaking bread with folks in Uptown without telling Chairman Fred Hampton. Once Lee had something to show for his effort, he took the idea of the coalition to Hampton who "got the idea" right away. Not everyone responded as Hampton did. Members of the Panthers and Lords questioned the choice of emblem and outsiders were simply confused about the seeming contradictions of Black radicals standing beside self-proclaimed hillbillies wearing Confederate flags.

Some of the Chicago Panthers and Lords opposed the coalition and exited their organizations. Nonetheless, the rebel-clad Patriots were able, in the words of the historian Jeffrey Ogbar, "to bond with blacks and Latinos in class terms in ways that the Students for a Democratic Society or most other white radicals could not." Before long, Ogbar writes in his book Black Power, it was possible to see Hampton "give a typically awe-inspiring speech on revolutionary struggle, while white men wearing berets, sunglasses, and Confederate rebel flags sewn into their jackets helped provide security for him."

Save your Confederate T-shirts, boys: NuSouth shall rise again!
NuSouth Apparel

All this would fade. Both SSOC and the Patriots soon dissolved, and by the end of the '70s the closest you could find to any of this—or at least, the closest I've managed to find—was the appropriation of Confederate symbols by certain segments of the white counterculture. And that didn't have much to do with racial unity. (Still later, in 1999, I'd find myself covering a black-owned business called NuSouth Apparel, which sold shirts that recast the battle flag in the colors of African liberation. In a clever publicity stunt, its founders marched on the South Carolina legislature to demand that their flag be raised in place of the more traditional Dixie banner then flying over the capitol. But they were being more irreverent than militant.)

Some schmo is bound to read the above as a "defense" of Confederate iconography, so let me be clear: When the battle flag made a comeback in the middle of the 20th century, the number one reason for its return was its popularity among the partisans of Jim Crow. The number two reason was the centennial of the Civil War. If you scraped together a list of additional reasons, I doubt that anti-racist radicals détourning the symbols of white supremacy would crack the top ten. This is a historical byway.

But you should remember that byway the next time a news outlet addresses the flag debates with that hoary old cliché, "Heritage or hate?" That phrase doesn't merely miss the possibility that heritage and hate aren't always opposed. It ignores all the other meanings that different people can attach to a symbol, especially one as charged as the battle flag.