DATE June 28, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Richard J. Ellis discusses the Pledge of Allegiance
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
One of the first things many of us learned to recite as a child is the Pledge
of Allegiance. In a new book about the history of the pledge, my guest,
Richard Ellis, says, `The daily recitation in schools and legislatures across
the nation tells us as much about our anxieties as a nation as it does about
our highest ideals, anxieties about immigrants, radicals, communism and
The pledge was written in 1892 as a salute for schoolchildren to say during a
weeklong public school celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher
Columbus' discovery of America. The magazine Youth's Companion promoted the
celebration and declared its ambition to see the US flag raised over every
public school as part of the commemoration. The pledge was written by one of
the magazine's writers, Francis Bellamy.
Richard Ellis' new book is called "To the Flag: the Unlikely History of the
Pledge of Allegiance." He's a professor of politics at Willamette University
in Oregon. I asked him why he wanted to write about the Pledge of Allegiance.
Professor RICHARD ELLIS (Author, "To the Flag"; Willamette University): One
of the things that initially interested me in the book was why it was when the
9th Circuit Court decided that `under God' was unconstitutional in June
2002--why did people get so upset about it? And, indeed, why does it matter
to us so much that our children pledge allegiance at all? It struck me as an
interesting ritual, and it still strikes me as a curious ritual. It's unusual
by the standards of Western democracies. Most Western liberal democracies
don't have their children start the day by pledging allegiance to the nation
and certainly not pledging allegiance to a nation under God. And so I think
what drew me to the history of the Pledge of Allegiance was answering that
question: Why did the United States do this, and why did we care so much
about it?--because, clearly, the reaction to that decision was intense.
GROSS: Let's look at the history of the Pledge of Allegiance. What do you
think is the most common assumption about the pledge that is actually false?
Prof. ELLIS: I think the most common assumption about the Pledge of
Allegiance is that we've always had it; it was somehow put there by the
Founding Fathers. And the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't come--isn't written
until 1892, a hundred years after the founding of the country. So why in
1892--and in 1892, what one has is increasing immigration and, in particular,
immigration that's bringing people who look different, no longer Western and
Northern Europeans, no longer just Protestants, but Catholics and Jews and
from Southern and Eastern Europe. And there's a great anxiety about that in
the country in the late 1880s and into the 1890s. The misconception is that
it's simply a statement about our ideals. It is that, too, `with liberty and
justice for all,' but it's also a statement that reflects a nation's
GROSS: So you're saying it reflects the anxiety of immigrants coming here,
but we want to make sure that they're pledging allegiance to the flag.
Prof. ELLIS: Right. Right. And the adults--you can't do anything about the
adults because they can't be reached. But what these people--feels that the
children can be reached, they can be molded. Interestingly, when the pledge
is slightly revised--because the original pledge was `I pledge allegiance to
my flag,' and it was revised in the early 1920s by a collection of patriotic
and veterans groups who felt--they were worried that when these children were
saying `my flag,' they meant the home country's flag, and so it was changed to
`the flag of the United States of America,' so that these immigrant children
couldn't mistake which flag they were pledging or couldn't surreptitiously be
pledging to their home country's flag.
GROSS: Would you recite the pledge as it was initially written?
Prof. ELLIS: It was originally written, `I pledge allegiance to my flag and
to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and
justice for all,' a much more elegant version of the pledge than we currently
GROSS: The word `indivisible' is in the original pledge, and how much does
that have to do with the recently divided nation during the Civil War?
Prof. ELLIS: Everything. It's absolutely a response to concerns about the
Civil War. The more general anxiety is that in the post-war period, people
have forgotten the sacrifices of the greatest generation, to use our
phraseology from World War II. But there was the sense that the Civil War
generation was the greatest generation. They had made the supreme sacrifices
for the nation and for the values for which it stood--and that in the late
19th century people are absorbed with making money, the pursuit of individual
happiness, materialism and that they are forgetting about the sacrifices that
the previous generations made.
GROSS: The pledge was written by Francis Bellamy and James B. Upham.
Prof. ELLIS: Yeah, the pledge is written by Bellamy. Upham is the one whose
idea it is to have a flag over every schoolhouse.
GROSS: Now you mentioned that one of the reasons for the pledge was the fear
of new immigrants, the fear of immigrants who didn't look like the people who
already lived here. Where did Bellamy stand on immigration?
Prof. ELLIS: Bellamy very much shared that fear of immigration. And one of
the things that drew me into this story was Francis Bellamy's biography and
his beliefs because what I had heard--the little bit I heard, I did hear that,
`Well, Francis Bellamy was a Christian socialist,' and I thought, `Well,
But when I looked more deeply, it seemed that the Christian socialism had a
lot less to do with the pledge than Bellamy's fears about immigrants, fears
about Catholics. And I came across something that Bellamy wrote a couple
years after the pledge. It just struck me as quite ironic that the author of
`with liberty and justice for all' also wrote this. He said, `The hard,
inescapable fact is that men not born equal, neither are they born free, but
all in bonds to their ancestors and their environments. The success of
government by the people will depend upon the stuff that people are made of.
The people must guard, more jealously even than their liberties, the quality
of their blood. A democracy like ours cannot afford to throw itself open to
the world where every man is a lawmaker, every dull-witted or fanatical
immigrant admitted to our citizenship is a bane to the commonwealth; where all
classes of society merge insensibly into one another. Every alien immigrant
or inferior race may bring corruption to the stock. There are races more or
less akin to our own whom we may admit freely and get nothing but advantage
for the infusion of their wholesome blood. But there are other races which we
cannot assimilate without a lowering of our racial standard, which should be
as sacred to us as the sanctity of our homes.' And that...
GROSS: Which races or ethnic groups was he most worried about admitting?
Prof. ELLIS: Southern Europeans, Eastern Europeans, Jews, Catholics; those
are the primary religious groups and source of origin that he's concerned
GROSS: Now you write that Bellamy, the author of the Pledge of Allegiance,
was not only concerned about immigrants, outsiders who might come in and
change our society in a bad way. He was worried about internal foes. Who was
he worried about inside America?
Prof. ELLIS: When Bellamy's writing the pledge, his primary concern is
immigrants and the native-born who aren't patriotic enough; not concerned
about the Civil War generation. But later on, in the 1920s, as the pledge
starts to spread--because originally the pledge is written for a single
occasion; Bellamy doesn't think this is going to be something that's said
every day in school or every week in school. But as it begins to spread in
the early part of the 20th century and begins to become a widespread practice
in public schools, that's when Bellamy starts to talk about the pledge in some
different ways and, in particular, about combatting radical subversion, which
becomes a strong concern for Bellamy and for others in the wake of World War I
and the Russian Revolution. And so he writes about the way in which the
pledge can be used to combat internal subversion.
The pledge, in Bellamy's view, is almost like a vaccination. It will
inoculate these children; they will start to feel an allegiance to the nation
before they even understand the words, so that when they are exposed to the
radical virus, they will be inoculated. And that's very much the way Bellamy
saw the pledge.
GROSS: My guest is Richard Ellis, author of the new book "To the Flag: the
Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is historian Richard Ellis. His new book is called "To the
Flag: the Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance."
Let's talk a little bit about how children were supposed to say the pledge.
And initially, you know, you weren't putting your right hand over your heart
when you said the pledge. What were you doing?
Prof. ELLIS: Right. The pledge, as it's originally designed--and James
Upham is the man who comes up with the salute--it begins with a military
salute. `I pledge allegiance to my flag'--and at the words `my flag,' the arm
would be extended up into the air, palm upwards. And so visually that looked
quite a lot like the Heil Hitler salute. And so in the '30s--people start to
become concern about that in the late '30s and early '40s, that this Pledge of
Allegiance, this salute, looks an awful lot like the Nazi salute. And, in
fact, there are pictures of people saying the Pledge of Allegiance from this
period. And even though Upham's original idea was to have the arm and palm
extended upwards, in fact, many people did it with the palm down, and so it
really did look an awful lot like the Nazi salute for a while.
GROSS: When did the Pledge of Allegiance become mandatory in schools?
Prof. ELLIS: The first flag salute statute dates from 1898 in New York state.
But the first state to make the Pledge of Allegiance specifically mandatory
was Washington state, and that happens in 1919. And that is in direct
response and out of a fear of a general strike that's happened in Seattle at
exactly that time. So the Pledge of Allegiance, in terms of a mandatory state
statute, dates from that period, and it differs across states.
But essentially the Pledge of Allegiance in the period between the 1910s and
the 1943 Supreme Court ruling is mandatory. If you don't say the Pledge of
Allegiance, the school can throw you out of school. And, in fact, they did
throw students out of school and sometimes arrested their parents because the
students weren't--they accused the parents of creating truants. The kids
couldn't go to school even though it was the schools telling the kids they
couldn't go to school. The parents were arrested.
GROSS: So the Supreme Court declared the mandatory pledge laws
Prof. ELLIS: Right. What happened is in the 1930s, 1935 in particular,
Jehovah's Witnesses start to refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag. They
decide that it's idolatrous to do so, and they refuse to pledge allegiance to
the flag, and they get thrown out of school. But unlike some of the previous
religious sects that had refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, the
Jehovah's Witnesses aren't shy about using the court system, so the Jehovah's
Witnesses take the case to the courts. And they have lots of cases, and they
lose in almost all of these cases, and, in fact, they lose in front of the
United States Supreme Court in 1940. And the United States Supreme Court
says, in an 8-to-1 ruling--and the opinion is written by Felix Frankfurter, an
FDR appointee and a founding member of the ACLU. And the Supreme Court says
the school board has the power and the state has the power to expel students
from school if they don't say the Pledge of Allegiance; that the courts need
to take a hands-off approach, and the state has a reasonable interest in
promoting--a compelling interest, in fact, in promoting patriotism.
Well, the reaction to that opinion is strongly critical. And in particular
what happens is you get a lot of violence visited against Jehovah's Witnesses.
They get beaten up. Some of the--in one case, there's a case of castration,
being forced to drink castor oil. And the people that are doing this are
pointing to the Supreme Court case and saying, `Look, the Supreme Court says
The court--some of the people on the court get very nervous about these
events, and they start to feel like `We made a mistake.' And so three years
later, 1943, on Flag Day, Justice Jackson, Robert Jackson, who was the
attorney general for FDR in 1940 that now sits on the Supreme Court--he writes
the opinion, and the Supreme Court changes course. And in some of the most
famous language, Justice Jackson says it's a matter of freedom of expression,
and if students choose not to say the Pledge of Allegiance, that should be
something they should be able to choose to do, to not have to say the Pledge
GROSS: So the Supreme Court reversed its own decision?
Prof. ELLIS: Yeah. Yeah. And it's very unusual, in three years. And you
have to understand, the first opinion in 1940 was handed down at the time that
the Nazis are just beginning to roll over Europe. It's the spring and early
summer of 1940. The Nazis are rolling over Europe, and there's tremendous
anxiety. And so there's a feeling on the part of the court that the state
really does have a compelling interest to promote patriotism.
GROSS: The two most controversial words in the pledge are `under God,' words
that are still being contested today in the courts. And these two words were
added in 1954 during the Cold War. How much was `under God' a way of trying
to differentiate America from, you know, quote, "godless Communists," unquote?
Prof. ELLIS: Yeah. I mean, it had everything to do with that. It's putting
the pledge at the service of the fight against communism, because at the end
of the Cold War the Communists posed primarily just a military threat. But
in the early years of the Cold War, communism was seen as a dangerous rival
for the allegiance of the people of the United States and the people across
the world. The United States stood for liberty and justice, but the
Communists claimed to stand for justice and equality, too. And people worried
that communism was able to instill a fierce fanatical loyalty that the West
couldn't match. And so many people came to believe, in those early years of
the Cold War, that fighting communisms required recommiting the nation to its
religious roots; that it was religion, the belief in God, that really
differentiated us from the godless, atheistic Communists. And that's where
our sense of commitment would come from. And, of course, if God's on our side
in this cosmic battle with communism, that's an immensely reassuring thought
at a terribly anxious time.
One of the things that's useful to remember is that the change to the pledge
is one of only a number of things that were done in the early 1950s to inject
religion into the public sphere, and they all have to do with this concern
about communism. In 1952, Congress mandates an annual National Day of Prayer.
Eisenhower begins each Cabinet meeting with a silent prayer. Today's national
prayer breakfast, which was then called the Presidential Prayer Breakfast,
dates from that period. Congress created the Prayer Room in the Capitol
during that period. In 1955, Congress added `In God we trust' to paper money;
coins already had it. In 1956, `In God we trust' became the national motto,
replacing `E pluribus unum.' The Post Office even got into the act and issued
a stamp adorned with `In God we trust' on it. It was unveiled on national TV
by the president and members of his Cabinet and religious leaders.
GROSS: Michael Newdow challenged the words `Under God' in the pledge, and in
2002, a federal court sided with him. But two years later the Supreme Court
threw out the decision and basically said that Michael Newdow didn't have any
standing in the case 'cause he was--he brought this case on behalf of his
daughter. But the Supreme Court said that since he and his wife were divorced
and he didn't have direct custody over the daughter, that he had no standing
in the case.
Prof. ELLIS: Right.
GROSS: So he's challenging it again, with four other people.
Prof. ELLIS: Right.
GROSS: What's this current case?
Prof. ELLIS: Well, this case will force the Supreme Court to take the
subject on its merits. It was able to decide the case on a technical issue of
standing and, therefore, avoid the question of whether including `under God'
in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the Establishment Clause. But in any
event, there seem to be three possibilities. One is you follow Rehnquist and
say that Establishment Clause precedents really aren't relevant here because
the Pledge of Allegiance is not a religious exercise. `Under God' is a
descriptive statement about our belief in God in the past, our founders'
belief in God. And so it's not about our aspirations to be a nation under
God. It's a descriptive statement; it's not a religious exercise. You can
also envision a version of that that talks about it being fundamentally
ceremonial. The idea is if it's like `In God we trust' on the money, it's
drained of its religious content, and that's one possibility.
The second possibility is that the court would decide to follow Clarence
Thomas and argue that the pledge case shows why Supreme Court jurisprudence in
this area has to be rethought and rolled back. And if the lower courts
applied Establishment Clause jurisprudence and found the `under God' clause to
be unconstitutional, that only shows how bad those previous establishment
court cases and precedents to rethink fundamentally Establishment Clause
And the third possibility is that it follows the 9th Circuit ruling, which was
to apply Establishment Clause precedents and strike down the Pledge of
Allegiance. And I'm not a lawyer, but I would think that one is more likely
than two or three.
GROSS: Richard Ellis is the author of "To the Flag: the Unlikely History of
the Pledge of Allegiance." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, more of our conversation with Richard Ellis about the
history of the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the story of the Confederate battle
flag, a flag that still flies in many places, even though many Americans
regard it as a symbol of white supremacy.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Richard Ellis, author
of the new book "To The Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of
One of the things you trace in your history of the Pledge of Allegiance is how
the pledge became politicized, and, of course, you know, you write about how
during the war in Vietnam that a lot of people refused to stand for the pledge
as a way to protest the war. And then you write about the 1988 presidential
campaign between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis and you say that the
pledge became a partisan issue in that campaign. How was the pledge used?
Prof. ELLIS: Well, using the pledge--first of all, the Pledge of Allegiance
becomes available to be used in partisan battles because the protest against
the pledge starts to be associated with the political point of view in the
'60s and '70s, whereas prior to that it was often religious objections and it
didn't have the same kind of political partisan implications that it started
to take on in the '60s and '70s. And so in the '88 campaign, the Republicans,
for the first time, really make it a national issue.
It had been used in some local campaigns in political ways in New York state
and other places, but they're able to put Dukakis in a very uncomfortable
position. Dukakis had previously vetoed a state law requiring the Pledge of
Allegiance, and it was pretty clear that on legal grounds Dukakis was on very
solid footing, but the problem was that the American public believed, and
still believe to this day, that the Pledge of Allegiance should be mandatory,
and public opinion polls clearly show that. So Dukakis talks about the
legalisms, but to the public, this is just another piece of evidence that
courts are out of step with the public.
And so Bush is able to use that. He's in a win-win situation there. He's
able to use that and play on people's feelings that there's these liberal
courts and that they're out of touch with the people and that they're even
telling us that we can't require students to say the Pledge of Allegiance,
which indeed the courts had been saying since 1943, but oftentimes, school
boards--it took awhile for them to get the message.
GROSS: One of the kind of funny things about the pledge is that it's
mostly--you know, like schoolchildren have recited it and you learn it when
you're, like, five or six and you don't know what any of it means,
particularly the word indivisible. I mean, most kids don't even know how to
pronounce it, and, you know, if you listen to kids saying the pledge, it's
just a lot of, like, odd syllables thrown together.
Prof. ELLIS: Right.
GROSS: So it's really--the language is much too formal for children to truly
comprehend, although, I mean, you get the gist of it, but...
Prof. ELLIS: Right. Right. Well, indivisible, of course, is the classic
one. Most--lots of kids think it's invisible, but Bellamy did understand
that. He understood that kids when they were saying this wouldn't necessarily
understand what they were saying, but later on, when it became clear that the
pledge was something that would be said on a regular basis, he thought of the
pledge as something that touched people's--kids' feelings and what it was was
not about thinking; it was about attaching the heart to the nation in a way.
And so it's a pre-rational attachment. And later on, when they were called
upon to explain, you know, what their country was about, they would then go
back to those words. They would become part of their memory. Bellamy's way
of thinking about it--he said it would do their thinking for them. It would
be the way they understood who they were when they became older; it
would--lodged in their subconscious. Bellamy thought that was a good thing.
I mean, that's the way propaganda works, too, and that's why some people have
al--I think some are little more nervous about it.
GROSS: You're a historian, and I'm not sure if you'll be comfortable
answering this in a personal way, but after learning the history of the
pledge, are you any more or less inclined to want to stand and recite it?
Prof. ELLIS: One of the things that makes the Pledge of Allegiance--thinking
about the pledge really is difficult--is I think there are some people who
feel uncomfortable pledging allegiance to the nation. It's not that they
don't feel patriotic but that they feel that there's something paradoxical or
odd or strange about the most individualistic nation of the world, the leader
of the free world, requiring its children to declare daily their allegiance to
the state. And there's something illiberal about that.
On the other hand, there are people for whom it feels the most natural thing
in the world and a very authentic way of declaring their love for their
country, and for those people, they have a hard time understanding the other
people and the other people have a hard time understanding the perspective of
the other people I think.
GROSS: Richard Ellis, thank you very much for talking with us.
Prof. ELLIS: It's been my pleasure.
GROSS: Richard Ellis is the author of "To the Flag: The Unlikely History of
the Pledge of Allegiance." He's a professor of politics at Willamette
University in Salem, Oregon.
Coming up, the story behind the Confederate battle flag and why Americans
still fight over its meaning.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jim Coski discusses his new book "The Confederate
TERRY GROSS, host:
Americans are still fighting about whether it's acceptable to display the
Confederate battle flag and still disagreeing about its meaning. Does the
flag represent white supremacy or is it merely a sentimental image of Southern
heritage? My guest John Coski is the author of the new book "The Confederate
Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem." He's the historian and
library director at The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. He
says he's not emotionally involved in the argument over the flag. He's a
historian who studies the Confederacy and its lasting impact on the nation.
Would you describe the Confederate battle flag and what it was first used for?
Mr. JOHN COSKI (Author, "The Confederate Battle Flag"): First, a purist--the
purist, that is a historian who's interested in vexillology, history of
flags--would tell you that there was no such thing as `the' Confederate battle
flag. So nodding in that direction and acknowledging that, I will answer the
question that--what I say when I refer to it is the blue cross, the blue
sideways or St. Andrew's Cross or saltire, studded with light stars on a
field of red. In some iterations, it was perfectly square. The more common
versions of it are rectangular, and it was first suggested as the national
flag of the Confederacy in 1861, not adopted as the national flag of the
Confederacy but adopted about a few months later as the battle flag of one of
the armies of the Confederacy, what became known as the Army of Northern
Virginia, Lee's army, in a perfectly square pattern; adopted because it was so
different from any other flag.
GROSS: So if this flag was just like one of the battle flags that was used
and it wasn't the official flag of the Confederacy, why has this flag become
the most potent symbol of the Confederacy?
Mr. COSKI: And it certainly has become the most potent symbol. And some
people I think are operating under the assumption that it became so in our own
time, that in a sense it's we stupid Americans of the 20th and 21st century
who have conflated all Confederate flags and made this pattern of whatever
size and shape to be `the' Confederate flag and `the' Confederate battle flag.
But I argue that really during the course of the war itself it became the most
potent symbol, and even by the end of the war, by 1865, it was not only the
battle flag of one of the armies, it had been diffused through the agency of
various generals who had been involved in its adoption as the battle flag of
several of the major field armies. It was known, at least, in most of the
theaters of war; most widely associated with Lee's army, which was by far the
most successful of the Confederate armies.
And more importantly, in 1863, it was incorporated into a new design of the
Confederate national flag. The Confederate national flag of 1861, which was
the one known as the stars and bars, was replaced in 1863 with another one
sometimes called the stainless banner, which was simply a white flag with what
we know as the battle flag up in its upper left corner. So it became part of
the official Confederate flag by the end of the war and not because of any
accident or any cabal but because it was, as you say, the most potent symbol
of Confederate nationalism.
GROSS: Who designed the flag, and what was it supposed to represent?
Mr. COSKI: Usually the designer is somewhat under dispute as such. Most of
us give credit to a man named William Porcher Miles. He was a congressman
from South Carolina who had originally designed--he had been inspired by a
secession flag he had seen in South Carolina in the winter of 1860-'61, a blue
Christian or a St. George's Cross on a red field. But he, at the request of
the Jewish community of Charleston, which was very patriotically Confederate
and influential, asked him not to start this new nation with what they
considered to be a sectarian Christian symbol. So he used a saltire instead,
what he said was a heraldic symbol rather than a Christian symbol. He did not
regard that cross as a St. Andrew's cross but as a saltire, a heraldic
device, blue on a field of red. But others claimed credit for it later and
particularly the two generals who helped to adopt it as the battle flag and
diffuse it to other parts of the Confederacy. Generals Beauregard and
Johnston are sometimes given credit, but ultimately, it was Miles who believed
in it and push it and led to its adoption.
GROSS: When the Civil War was over, how come this Confederate battle flag
didn't end with the war? How come it had a life that went on?
Mr. COSKI: That's the critical question in all of this. If it were
something that was simply associated with the life of the Confederacy and had
been furled as the poet Father Abram Ryan said when he advised Southerners to
`furl that banner till it is holy,' the assumption being that it was a beloved
symbol of the lost cause and of the Confederacy to be revered but never to be
seen again, it would likely, to be today, a controversial symbol but not
nearly as much as it has been because it didn't disappear, except for a few
years in the immediate aftermath of the war. But within five years or so of
the end of the war, as Southern states were being re-admitted into the Union,
it was used as a memorial symbol at funerals, primarily in a sort of mournful,
funereal commemorative way but by the end of the 19th century used in a more
aggressive way--that is, by--associated with the school of thought that the
Confederacy may have lost but it was right--a celebration of the Confederate
cause and Confederate heroes. Thus, this flag, in particular, was used in
memorial--monument dedications, in meetings of Confederate heritage
organizations that were formed by 1900 and at veterans parades in celebrations
of the lost cause. So it was a visible symbol on the Southern landscape but
in almost an exclusively commemorative way by 1900.
GROSS: How did the flag start to become associated with 20th century white
supremacy and racism?
Mr. COSKI: Primarily, the real turning point as such was in 1948 when the
so-called Dixiecrat Party, the States Rights Democratic Party, broke away from
Harry Truman's Democratic Party in protest of Truman's embrace of civil rights
and support for the Civil Rights Commission and the civil rights agenda of the
Democratic Party. And the States Right Party, the Dixiecrats, nominated the
late Strom Thurmond as the president, and at the convention of the Dixiecrats
in Birmingham in 1948, many of the delegates appeared on the convention floor
in these uproarious rallies with battle flags and pictures of Robert E. Lee.
But in the course of the campaign, even though the party leaders did not want
to have the battle flag as a symbol and did not want it to be seen as a purely
Southern party, the followers of the party did. And even before that, in
early to mid-1940s, best that I can determine, the Ku Klux Klan began using
the battle flag in its rituals in a limited way. And then all the more, and
after the Dixiecrats and after the Brown decision of 1954 and the South
mobilized to fight against federal interference with Jim Crow and segregation,
the battle flag became a ubiquitous symbol in the hands of not the Klan
necessary--them, too--but really more importantly the ordinary white
Southerners. It became a symbol of opposition to integration.
GROSS: And then the Confederate battle flag started to be flown on campuses
in the South. How did the flag become part of campus life and what was the
significance of that?
Mr. COSKI: The best I can determine on this is that in 1920s, '30s
primarily, it had become a familiar part of campus life primarily through the
aegis of the Old South fraternity called Kappa Alpha which still exists today
and it has had many issues over the last decades in trying to dissuade its
members from embracing the battle flag, but Kappa Alpha had been founded at
Washington College, now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia,
of which one old retired general named Robert E. Lee was president. And it
was a fraternity founded in order to preserve and honor and ennoble the
causes, the chivalric ideals of the Old South. In a sense, Kappa Alpha was a
memorial organization like other Confederate memorial organizations.
But as time passed and it became less of a memorial organization, perhaps, and
more of a fraternity--after all, we're talking about 18-, 22-year-old
boys--the reverence for the flag became perhaps a bit lessened and it became
more of a feature of campus life. And through Kappa Alpha, other fraternities
embraced it, and this became particularly important in the World War II era as
more Southern schools started playing intercollegiate sports against Northern
schools. What better symbol of the South, particularly when you're taking on
a Northern school, than the battle flag? The battle flag had become by the
turn of the century and particularly by the middle of the 20th century a
shorthand symbol, a logo, if you will, for South. So that campus presence
made its way into the political realm. It made its way as well into the
American military during World War II.
GROSS: The Confederate flag has also being used in stock car races. How did
it get associated with stock car races, and do you see it much today in
Mr. COSKI: It began, in fact, in that magic year in 1948 and--about that
time--with the birth of the raceway at Darlington, South Carolina, the
Superspeedway and really the birth of NASCAR as we know it today in that same
time frame. It was embraced very much at Darlington and became, if not an
officially endorsed symbol, a widely used symbol; in the winner's circle, the
symbolism all over the track at Darlington from the late 1940s into the 1970s
and early 1980s. Even though NASCAR never has been an exclusively Southern
sport, it had a Southern flavor. And the flag seemed a natural symbol for the
Today, it's been de-emphasized officially since about the 1980s or so. And
today, as NASCAR reaches out to African-American audiences, the battle flag's
presence in the infield and among race fans has become something of an issue,
and a lot of people are burning up the wires of the Internet and discussing
NASCAR's apparent effort to distance the sport from the battle flag and
resenting it highly.
GROSS: I'd like you to choose one of the current controversies surrounding
the flying of the Confederate flag or the use of the Confederate flag and tell
us what you think is going on there.
Mr. COSKI: One of the most interesting ones and rich, although it may lead
me to a very long answer, is the Elmwood Cemetery in Charlotte, North
Carolina. Within this public cemetery--and public is a critical part of the
equation here--is a small section walled off where there are Confederate
graves, and there had been a large flagpole with a Confederate battle flag on
it. And at the behest of a group, I believe, of African-American citizens who
said that the flag was visible from outside the gates of the cemetery, the
city took it down. And after holding a couple of hearings at which typically
the majority of the people present were defenders of the flag, vocal but
polite, the city manager decided anyway to take the flag down, to take down
the flagpole and, in fact, cap off the flagpole so that another one could not
be erected in its place.
It cuts to the core of several issues at once. One is that the flag was on
public property, and, therefore, the public symbolism and the public has a say
in the matter. It's not a matter of wearing the flag on your T-shirt. It is
thus public sponsorship of the flag. And, therefore, the public has a role in
deciding whether a Confederate flag is appropriate and whether people who find
it offensive because of its racist association should have to bear the cost of
it and have it representing them which is just one of the major strains of
But also it's a cemetery. If not appropriate in a cemetery, over the graves
of Confederate soldiers, where is it appropriate? It gets to one issue we
haven't discussed which is the fact that the flag can mean several things at
once and does. I mean, the critical part of the controversies of the flag
today is understanding that this symbol can and does mean many things to
different people at the same time.
GROSS: My guest is John Coski, author of the new book "The Confederate Battle
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is John Coski, author of the new book "The Confederate Battle
Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem." He's the historian and library
director at The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.
The House recently approved a constitutional amendment that would read, `The
Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of
Mr. COSKI: Yes.
GROSS: Now your book is about the Confederate flag, not about the American
flag. But I wonder why you think this issue of flag desecration has come back
again to the extent that Congress is considering a constitutional amendment
that would allow Congress to make desecration illegal.
Mr. COSKI: Of course, the reason it's come back now is post-9/11. The
patriotism that swept the nation since 9/11 is at least the occasion for it if
not the cause for it and why people pushing this amendment believe that it
might succeed now where it hasn't in the past. It comes in cycles, of course,
and apropos to the Confederate flag, many people may not realize, that at
least on the books in many states of the South today are laws that are very
similar, that protect the Confederate flag from desecration. Those were
passed first in Mississippi in I think 1916. And then as the flag,
Confederate flag that is, became more widely used and abused by the clan, by
teen-ager, by bikers, by everyone else, by manufacturers of tacky merchandise,
in the 1950s and '60s, state laws were passed in South Carolina, in Louisiana,
in Georgia, several other states, protecting the Confederate flag from misuse
and desecration. But needless to say, those flags--those laws, that is,
became a dead letter at the same time that the law protecting the US flag were
invalidated by the court decisions in 1989 and 1990.
GROSS: In the South, there are a lot of Civil War monuments, memorials in
public places and restaurants. Why do you think that those memorials aren't
controversial in the way that flying the Confederate flag is, 'cause they're
basically memorializing, you know, the lost cause in a similar way?
Mr. COSKI: Well, in fact, they are becoming increasingly controversial. The
defenders of the flag have long been warning that the flag is simply the tip
of the iceberg. One reason for the defensiveness about the flag, why so many
of the defenders are fighting tooth and nail to prevent its removal is that
they believe that it's just the top of the slippery slope. They say--they,
the NAACP and other critics--that they don't want to take down all flags, they
just want to take those on public property, but then the next shoe to drop
will be all flags and then beyond that the monuments. That's been the warning
And now, in fact, there are controversies surrounding monuments, for instance,
in Memphis, that there are three parks named after Confederate generals, or
Confederates Davis and Forrest and the third I cannot remember. But there's
movement afoot to change the names of the parks and, in some places, to remove
the monuments. And just the other day in Portsmouth, Virginia, not for the
first time, someone spray-painted the face of one of the monuments to the
soldiers of the Confederacy in Portsmouth. That happens occasionally. It's
been happening occasionally for decades, but it happens often enough to
substantiate the warnings of those that, `It's not just flags, it will be
every vestige of the Confederacy on the Southern landscapes that is going to
have to be removed if we give in now.'
GROSS: What's one of the strangest places, one of the most surprising places
you've run into a Confederate flag?
Mr. COSKI: Probably the strangest place that I encountered the flag was in
Europe when I was traveling in Europe in 1992 as we were starting the research
for the exhibit on this subject of the battle flag, and I thought I'd go to
Europe and get away from it for a while. Little did I know that everywhere I
went in Europe, I was seeing battle flags. We were in Wurzburg and passed by
a BMW, and the guy had a little battle flag hanging from the rear-view mirror.
I went into a restaurant in Vienna, a kid in a leather jacket with a battle
flag on the sleeve--on the shoulder, rather, with Elvis superimposed over it;
in the markets in Florence, where these god-awful T-shirts with battle flags
and motorcycle rider death heads and things like that.
It's just a real grabber of a symbol, and it has an international shorthand
meaning now for not only the South when used in conjunction--like, why you see
it on so many dust jackets of books when to communicate the South, but it also
means in shorthand `rebel' and an independent mind-set, and this flag has
become an international symbol of what it is to be a rebel as an individual
who puts his middle finger out to the rest of the world.
GROSS: Well, John Coski, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. COSKI: Thank you very much for inviting me.
GROSS: John Coski is the author of "The Confederate Battle Flag." He's the
historian and library director at The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond,
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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