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Society & Culture

Why is the Confederate Flag Appearing Around Philadelphia? A Q&A with Mary Ebeling

October 23, 2013

Confederate battle flag

Mary Ebeling grew up in Virginia, and she has family members elsewhere in the South. So it wasn’t as if she was unfamiliar with the Confederate battle flag.

But when she saw one taped to a lamppost not far from her West Philadelphia home a few years ago, it was still a shock.

In her neighborhood, which has a predominantly African-American population, the flag seemed to carry a disturbing message, said Ebeling, an associate professor of sociology in the Department of Culture and Communication at Drexel. But the flag may not be as rare a sight as it used to be in the Philadelphia area, according to a Philadelphia Daily News story published last month.

The flag can be seen adorning cars, popping up at country-music concerts and even flying from poles outside some homes in the area, the Daily News reported. The newspaper turned to Ebeling, whose research on media and political sociology has included study on the use of symbols, for comment on the issue. The native Southerner recounted the flag’s appearance near her home and said that, to her, this is one symbol that has a clear meaning: “white supremacy.”

DrexelNow asked Ebeling to expand on her Daily News comments and discuss the message and meaning behind this most divisive and potent of American symbols.

What have been your experiences with the Confederate flag?

I’m originally from Virginia. Also, part of my family’s from Louisiana, and they now live in Pensacola (Fla.). I come across the Confederate flag a lot down South.

This happened a few years ago: I was very shocked to see a small, fabric Confederate flag that had been duct-taped to the lightpost next to a bus stop on the corner at Walnut and 49th, which is in a predominantly African-American community. It was in front of a little bodega that’s right there on the corner. West Philadelphia High is right around from that corner, and a lot of people congregate on that corner. So I do think it was a very intentional signal that was being sent to that community, because I cannot for the life of me believe that anyone in my neighborhood would put that flag up on that corner. So I found that very shocking.

Growing up in Virginia, I never saw anyone fly the Confederate flag outside of their house. People would put up the American flag. When I read this story, saying that people are flying the flag outside of their house in suburban Philadelphia, I found that really surprising.

What does the Confederate flag mean to you, and why do you disagree with the idea that it’s simply a marker of regional pride?

The Confederate flag that we know as the Confederate flag was one of many flags (used by the Confederacy). This was a battle flag that was designed toward the end of the war. Apparently soldiers would get confused in the battlefield about what side they were on. So they made a battle flag that would be distinctly recognizable as different from the Union flag. And the next year, the Confederacy fell. So it only had a brief life during the Confederacy, and then it was not used until 1956 — two years after Brown v. Board of Education. And it was used by white protesters who were protesting against the integration of schools in Mississippi.

So, I think that tells us a lot: that the Confederate flag is not a regional symbol. I would argue it’s a symbol of white supremacy. It’s a symbol of white supremacy protesting against black empowerment, or an empowerment of people of color more generally.

Do you think attitudes about the flag are different among the people who display it in this region of the country, as opposed to people who display it in the South?

My argument is that the symbol has the same meaning, for the people that use it and for the people who encounter it, whether they are in Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia or Philadelphia. The whole point of a flag is a symbol. And what are symbols? We attach meaning, very particular meanings, to symbols. And they are supposed to stand in for us. They’re supposed to stand in for how we think. They’re supposed to represent our ideology, our position for something.

And the Confederate flag, it was de-contextualized as a battle flag and re-contextualized in the 1950s as a symbol of white supremacy and protest against black empowerment. And no matter how hard white people argue that “I’m just a proud Southerner and I want to represent my region,” you are representing this whole legacy, this whole history, this whole ideology, with that symbol.

In the future, maybe 50 or 100 years from now, do you see attitudes or views on the flag evolving or changing at all?

I don’t know. Think about another symbol that was re-appropriated and re-contextualized: the swastika. The swastika was re-appropriated from being a sacred Hindu symbol. The swastika originally meant the cycle of life, the infinity of life. And the Nazis re-appropriated it as a tool of propaganda, to be kind of a quick symbol or brand of their ideology.

And to this day, in many countries in Europe, it’s illegal to buy and sell Nazi memorabilia. This is 60-odd years after World War II. This symbol is still a potent, powerful symbol. I think it’s going to take centuries for that meaning to be decoupled from that symbol. I mean, that’s why symbols are powerful.

In this country, I think it’s going to be at least another couple hundred years before the Confederate flag will not hurt people when they look at it.

Why do you think this increase in the use of the flag in the North is apparently happening?

This journalist said people have been using the Confederate flag as a symbol of protest against Barack Obama. And, you know, I feel like that tells you all you need to know about why the Confederate flag is making an appearance above the Mason-Dixon Line. That says it all, because people weren’t using the Confederate flag to protest against George W. Bush.