In 1979, an orange Dodge Charger, with a Confederate flag emblazoned across the roof, raced onto television screens around the world. In this car, otherwise known as the General Lee, sat Beau and Luke Duke; two ‘good old boys’ who ‘never mean any harm’ who spent their days ‘fightin’ the system like two modern-day Robin Hoods.’ The Dukes of Hazzard, and their wild escapades around a fictional county in Georgia, brought a little piece of the Deep South to the masses; embracing the imagery and symbolism typically associated with the region. The Duke family playfully referenced Hillbilly stereotypes and took delight in regularly flouting the law, which they considered an infringement on their individual liberties and rural way of life. However, the most memorable of all these motifs, seen in almost every police chase or joyride, sat atop the coolest car on television.
Created in 1861, the Confederate battle flag is widely considered the most recognisable symbol of the Confederacy. This collective, initially formed of seven southern states, were all determined to maintain the practise of enslaving and exploiting Black people, forcing them to work on the thousands of plantations that populated the region. In 1861, the American Civil War began, which was a conflict between these southern, secessional states and the united states of the North. It is largely accepted that the issue of slavery lay at the heart of this war, with the North promising to emancipate all enslaved people and the South in vehement opposition. Therefore, by the end of the war in 1865, which the South lost, the Confederate battle flag had come to represent pro-slavery ideology, and more broadly, white supremacy and racial hatred.
So, how did such a contentious and violent symbol end up on the roof of a 1969 Dodge Charger, and when did relics of the Confederacy become acceptable for prime-time television? The answer to this question lies in the years immediately after the end of the Civil War, when a number of heritage groups began a campaign of memorialising and rebranding the South, primarily to counter the humiliation of loss. This effort was particularly powerful given the number of lives lost by the Confederacy and the perceived disadvantage they fought with. Groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) made it their mission to rewrite the history of the Civil War. They sought to shift the focus away from the issue of slavery, instead choosing to deify famous Confederate figures and emphasise the traditional South’s willingness to stand in opposition to the might of the industrial North. The erection of Confederate statues and emphasis on a romanticised version of the Antebellum South were pivotal in ensuring the Confederacy could be remembered in a way that enabled Southerners to maintain pride in the region. By taking control of the documentation and development of their own cultural heritage, the UDC were able to counter what they saw as an imbalance of power that resulted in far greater adversity in the South than in the North.
This Lost Cause narrative, which encapsulates a multitude of efforts to assert that the South’s role in the Civil War was a noble one, not only greatly romanticised the South, but also sought to valorise the Confederacy and its ‘heroes’. Statues of figures like General Robert E. Lee quickly appeared in town squares across the South, each marked with a ceremony steeped in nostalgia, with crowds singing ‘Dixie’ and waving Confederate flags. The message behind all of this propaganda was deliberately made very clear: the South’s determination to stand against the might of Union troops was rooted in demands for individual states’ rights, independence and bravery. For some, particularly those in formerly Confederate states, the distinctive red flag with its blue, starry cross came to represent individualism, courage and rebellion.
Popular culture like the Dukes of Hazzard further compounded this idea that the Confederate battle flag was a symbol of independence and counter-culture. The image became popular with bands like Lynrd Skynrd and has been seen on skateboards, bumper stickers, guitars and bandanas. On the surface, it has often appeared that the continued efforts of groups like the UDC to neutralise the Confederacy’s legacy were, at least in part, successful. In fact, this association with rebellious individualism became so embedded in American culture, the flag’s association with slavery and the Civil War had been almost completely lost for members of some communities. This is exemplified by an incident documented by Tony Horwitz in an article for New Yorker magazine, whereby a young white man, driving a car bearing the Confederate flag, was shot and killed by a young Black man. Despite the fact the flag is, at its roots, a symbol of oppression and white supremacy, in this case it is thought the young man who was killed had little knowledge of this. One might of course presume that, in this case, the flags were symbolic of racist attitudes and therefore displayed on the car in order to stoke animosity. Instead, the driver’s sister claimed; ‘That flag was a symbol of him. He was a rebel, a daredevil, outspoken. He’d do anything.’ To him, the symbol supposedly represented the rebellious individualism of the Lost Cause South. Perhaps then, Confederate iconography may have been something the shooter felt deeply affected by, given the Confederacy’s association with racial hatred and white supremacy. However, when questioned the young Black man referred to the flag as ‘the Dukes of Hazzard sign,’ having never understood the history of the symbol until discussing it with some of his white high-school classmates. This incident shows clearly how closely aligned the commercialised and rebranded South of ‘Hazzard’ is with the popular concept of southern identity and the apparent evolution of the meaning behind the Confederate flag.
This said, the historical significance of the flag, and the wider legacy of the Confederacy, cannot be ignored. For the Black community in particular, display of the Confederate flag has long served as a painful reminder of both the violence of the past, as well as the systemic racism and inequality of the present day. In recent years, this memory has been weaponised by a number of far-right groups. In 2017, neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, supposedly mobilised, at least in part, by debates surrounding the possible removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Seen among the flaming torches of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally, were a large number of Confederate battle flags, this time absolutely intended to represent racial hatred and white supremacy. In many respects, the flag had returned to its roots; its historical symbolism revived, in the hopes of creating the same kind of vehement belief in racial hierarchy that ultimately sparked the Civil War. For those who recognised it, the Confederate flag’s presence at far-right rallies was an alarming sign of radicalisation and racially motivated violence.
Flash forward to January 2021, and the Confederate battle flag made another public appearance, this time on the steps of the US Capitol building. The flags were wielded by a crowd of insurrectionists looking to disrupt democratic process and to prevent Joe Biden from becoming the 46th president of the United States. To some extent, onlookers could be forgiven for thinking the Confederate flag’s appearance in Washington served as a symbol more in line with the Dukes of Hazzard than with the events of Charlottesville. After all, the insurrectionists were actively rebelling against the status quo; they were standing up to federal power, perhaps in the footsteps of the courageous underdogs they believed General Lee and his ilk to have been. However, given the broader context of the crowd’s opposition to Joe Biden and their ardent support of Donald Trump, these particular flags were emblematic of white supremacist belief and far-right radicalisation. During his presidency, Donald Trump made a number of racist and misogynistic comments, as well as refusing to denounce the actions of white supremacist groups. The insurrectionists outside the Capitol were therefore cut from the same cloth as the mob in Charlottesville, and upon breaking into the building, they took with them the Confederate flag, as well as the division and hatred its history has imbued it with.
Despite the many and continued efforts to rewrite the history of the Confederate battle flag, it is not a rebellious bumper sticker. Rather, it is a constant reminder of a painful and racist history which contributed to the development of a society still stricken by hatred and inequality.
Isabel is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. She is in her first year of this research focusing on the interpretation of colonial history across the heritage sector and its role in the perpetuation of systemic racism. She also has several years’ experience working in the UK heritage sector and is now a freelance Heritage and Inclusion consultant. Isabel works with companies and charitable organisations to provide educational sessions contextualising systemic racism by enabling a broader understanding of colonial history and its role in upholding white supremacy.