Confederate symbol near campus, history and contexts

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The Six Flags of Texas are a prominent piece of our history, even appearing on the reverse side of the Texas Seal.

The six flags consist of all the flags that have flown over Texas in its history, starting with the Flag of Spain, and proceeded by the royal banner of the Kingdom of France, The Flag of Mexico, The Flag of the Confederate States of America, the Flag of the Republic of Texas and the United States Flag. The flags serve to illustrate Texas History, which is one of many shifts in power.

In lieu of recent events involving alt-right demonstrations, some institutions have taken down or modified their display of the six flags. Many argue that this is an erasure of history though, and that the flags spark the necessary discussion of our past that allows us to move forward. The Sam Houston State Memorial Museum displays the Six Flags of Texas unmodified. Why? Firstly, let’s look at the difference in a theme park and a museum.

As of Aug. 18, Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington is no longer displaying the six flags that have flown over Texas, but six American flags instead. The change comes shortly after the violence in Charlottesville, where a car ran down a crowd protesting an alt-right march, resulting in one death and 19 injuries.

However, this is not the first time the theme park has made this sort of change. By the mid-1990’s, the park no longer displayed any of the Confederate Battle flags it had historically flown in the Confederate section of the park. One of the park’s attractions that has phased out in recent years involved actors dressed as confederate soldiers, who would search the crowd for a hiding union soldier, and upon finding him, “execute” him by firing squad. The new version of the demonstration simply involves the capture of the union soldier.

A couple important distinctions should be made here, as the two flags mentioned have very different meanings. The flag historically flown at Six Flags Over Texas is the first flag of the Confederate States of America, also known as the “Stars and Bars”. Zachary Montz, a history professor at SHSU, explained the distinction between displaying this flag at an amusement park versus a museum.

“Ideally, its display in a museum should serve not just to remind museum goers that Texas was part of the Confederate States of America, but also to introduce them to a full consideration of what that meant,” Montz said.

To explain a “full consideration of what that meant,” Montz referenced the Texas Declaration of Causes, a document published on Feb. 2, 1861, detailing the reasons Texas would be joining the Confederate States of America: “maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery.”

The Confederate Battle Flag is the flag that was flown at Charlottesville, and was removed from Six Flags theme parks two decades ago. Its purpose is much more sinister.

Montz explained the differences.

“The battle flags waved in Charlottesville, on the other hand, served to endorse a cause that had roots in the antebellum and civil war era, but that continued well after the defeat of the Confederate States of America: white supremacy,” Montz said. “That flag became a symbol of twentieth century resistance to civil rights and to the idea of equality as guaranteed by the Constitution.  It was the banner of Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat party and of the terrorist organizations that carried out bombings and assassinations targeting the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. It has become common for defenders of the flag to argue that it is a symbol of Southern pride, but the actual use of the flag tells a different story. In the 1960s, for example, it was waved not just by Southerners in Alabama or Mississippi, but also by white Northerners as they organized and fought to prevent the integration of their schools and neighborhoods. No one took this flag waving as an expression of Southern pride by Northern whites; its meaning was clear.”

The theme park has a clear motive in respecting the sensitivities of its patrons. While history is a clear theme of the park, the primary intention of a park is to entertain, and to this end, for the same reason the demonstration of an execution by firing squad was cut, so was the original display. At the end of the day, a theme park is not beholden to the responsibility of preserving history.

A museum has a very different purpose. A museum’s primary objective is to preserve history, including, and perhaps especially, the parts that may be difficult to talk about. Montz and SHSU professor Jeffrey L. Littlejohn both agreed that the display of this flag was justified in this context. Both professors said that keeping the flag was vital to preserve some semblance of the past in order to avoid repeating it. This begs the question then: When is it not justified to display Confederate-era artifacts?

It is clear that the confederate flag flown at the SHSU Memorial Museum is not being used to endorse slavery, as it is part of a display that celebrates having moved on from those days. What about Confederate-era monuments though? Since the events in Charlottesville, many confederate monuments have been toppled across the south. It is important to note when these statues went up to understand their meaning. The vast majority of these monuments were produced at two specific times. Stephanie McCurry, a history professor at Columbia University, shared her thoughts on how these time periods influenced the creation of these statues.

“It came at the turn of the century when white southerners were attempting to disenfranchise black people,” McCurry said. “The second burst came in resistance to black civil rights and political rights in the 1960’s. It’s very predictable.”

Many of these monuments were also funded by a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which also pushed for textbooks that excluded black history, as well as preserving the “Lost Cause” mythos. The Lost Cause myth is a name given to a particular version of American History in which the Civil War was indeed not about slavery, but instead about state’s rights and protecting the southern antebellum identity.

“The heritage of the Confederacy is that they made war on the United States because they felt that slavery was threatened and that the way to protect it was to be a separate and independent country,” McCurry said.

The display at the SHSU Memorial Museum was not erected to instill fear or to be a symbol of southern pride.

“Here it might be useful to draw a distinction between history and commemoration,” Montz said. “Historians often describe ‘history’ as the way we understand the past.  ‘Commemoration’ in a process whereby society chooses what to honor from the past.  The DOC was an organization dedicated to commemorating the soldiers of the Confederacy, not just for their battlefield sacrifice or bravery, but for their dedication to the principle of white supremacy.”

The mission statement of the museum seems to fall in line with this motive as well: “It is educational in purpose, dedicated to and responsible for collection, preservation, conservation, exhibition, interpretation, and research.”

The reason that the SHSU Memorial Museum displays the Confederate Flag is to honor history, not commemorate injustice. This line needs to be painstakingly clear, as The Lost Cause mythos is exactly that: a myth. The purpose of this Confederate flag is to preserve an unbiased Texas history, and it does just that as part of The Six Flags of Texas. It is justified because it is not used to preserve a false history, instill fear, or commemorate white supremacy, but serves as a reminder of the evils of our past.