Yes, the Confederate Flag Is Racist and Has No Place on Main Street

A rebel flag flower display in front of a Jasper, Alabama, monument honoring the town's Confederate soldiers. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress

After the Informer published photos of Confederate flags — including one flying atop the truck of Cool Biker Stuff, the main vendor invited to Ames Bike Night by the Main Street Cultural District and Ames Convention and Visitors Bureau — on display at Friday’s city-funded (PDF) event, I posted a link to the article on Ames People, a private Facebook group with nearly 10,000 members with past or present connections to Ames, in hopes of sparking a meaningful discussion about whether this is the image the city really wants to project about its supposedly elite downtown.

But Ames People is often a cesspool of inane bickering and backward attitudes, and the conversation soon descended into all-too-common misogynist insults (example: “You go liberal hippies! Oh ouch my vagina hurts! Burn it down I am offended! Quit being pussies!”) and rationalizations about how the rebel flag — a symbol deeply and inextricably rooted in explicit acts of racism against African Americans — was really about Southern heritage and patriotism, and about how those who wear it are simply misunderstood and should have had a chance to explain their views.

It’s reasonable to believe that some defenders of the Confederate flag truly don’t consider it to be racist, but that’s missing the point entirely. The prevailing attitude on Ames People, that the Informer and those who agreed with us were just being politically correct ninnies and that those who took offense to the racism on open display last Friday, essentially, ought to fuck off and stay away from Main Street on Bike Nights to avoid offending their delicate minds, is a privilege of ignorance that only those who haven’t been subjected to the racism connoted in the symbol can afford.

The Southern heritage represented by the Confederate flag is inherently racist. The flag came into use in the middle of the American Civil War by the Confederate States of America, which treasonously seceded from the United States when the Union threatened its right to own African Americans as property — a heinous practice that its economy relied upon, as fully one-third of its population was held in bondage. The cause that the Confederate flag initially stood for was undeniably that of white nationalism; this is a well-documented historical fact, not something that is open for interpretation by those who wish to justify donning the flag on Main Street last weekend.

Contrary to what modern defenders of the rebel flag would have you believe, there is no historical revisionism at play when people correctly interpret the symbol as racist. In the 1940s, when Dixiecrats adopted the flag, it was to protest federal anti-segregation policies. The same was true when the University of Mississippi began displaying the flag that same decade; when it was incorporated into Georgia’s state flag in 1956; and when George Wallace, the notorious segregationist and Alabama governor, raised the flag above the state Capitol building in 1963.

The Confederate flag has long been a central part of white power rallies, including Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi gatherings. Dylann Roof, who last year slaughtered nine African Americans, including a well-known civil rights activist, at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, had a Confederate flag on the front bumper of his car to honor its segregationist symbolism. He wanted to start a race war, not unlike the South’s motivation for rising up against its own nation in defense of slavery. Just yesterday, several people were stabbed during a counter-demonstration at a neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento, to which the neo-Nazis brought at least one Confederate flag.

Last Friday in the middle of Main Street, that same flag flew atop the Cool Biker Stuff truck with the blessing of two major organizations closely affiliated with the city of Ames. That so many dismissed concerns about this is a sign of their willful ignorance about the flag’s history, not of the overly sensitive political correctness of its opponents.

Speaking of neo-Nazis, a commenter on our Confederate flag post rightly criticized us for overlooking the neo-Nazi emblems on open display inside Cool Biker Stuff’s ring case Friday night. (When I started taking pictures of the rings, an employee tried to shoo me away on the pretense that I might be looking to steal from the shop, which I had a constitutional right to photograph because it was on public property in the middle of the street — the same right that the Confederate flag’s supporters lamely invoked in support of the shop’s display of it.) Highlighted below, you can see rings of Thor’s hammer (1) and the Iron Cross (2), both of which are symbols commonly used by neo-Nazis:

Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer
Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

As others have rightly noted, hate groups have also used more innocuous symbols including the American flag at their rallies. But make no mistake: There is a reason why the Confederate flag and white nationalism so frequently go hand in hand, and it’s because of the repulsive, intolerant history that the flag represents. And there’s a reason why some of the flag’s loudest political proponents are people like Congressman Steve King, who last week bizarrely argued that it would be “racist” and “sexist” to replace the image of a slaveowner complicit in genocide against Native Americans with a black woman abolitionist on the front of the $20 bill.

Because of redistricting after the 2010 Census, Ames has little choice but to put up with King’s racist grandstanding, but there’s no reason our city should further embrace such bigotry. The MSCD and Convention and Visitors Bureau need to immediately and forcefully state in a public forum that Ames has no tolerance for open displays of racism, and then back up their words with action — starting by prohibiting Cool Biker Stuff, the vendor that flew the Confederate flag and sold neo-Nazi emblems, from ever again attending Ames Bike Night — or they need to put an end to the event and replace it with others more reflective of the city’s diverse population and progressive values. If they say nothing, their silence should be interpreted as tacit approval of the beliefs of the worst among us, and the City Council should cut off funding to both organizations until they have more enlightened leadership.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.