In May 1865, the newly freed African American population of Charlestown, South Carolina, celebrated Decoration Day – the precursor to Memorial Day – by honoring Union soldiers who died while being held as prisoners of war in the city.
Prior to the event, Black men from a local church built a fence around the burial ground and landscaped the graves. On Decoration Day, Black schoolchildren marched to the burial ground alongside Black adults and white abolitionists. Together, they distributed flowers among the graves, and, according to one newspaper report, “when all had left, the holy mounds … were one mass of flowers … there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.”
The practice and meaning of Memorial Day have changed dramatically since the first unofficial Decoration Day (in no small part due to the South’s resistance to Reconstruction after the Civil War). But as historian David Blight uncovers in his book “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” the holiday’s origins can be traced back to the community of African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, who recognized the importance of memorializing and honoring the soldiers who had given their lives to help abolish slavery.
How our country and our military memorialize its veterans matters. It is unacceptable that the U.S. military continues to glorify the Confederacy through the 78 symbols that are associated with the military today. The SPLC renews its calls for the immediate removal of these offensive symbols of hate and white supremacy.
To provide further background on the use of Confederate symbols in the military and why these memorials have no place in our armed forces, Kimberly Probolus, a public historian and fellow working on the Whose Heritage? project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, sat down with Matthew Delmont, a historian, author and professor at Dartmouth College, to discuss the long history of Confederate symbols in the military. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Probolus: Most of your research up to now has focused on race and the media. Why did you become interested in military history generally and symbols of the Confederacy in the military specifically?
Delmont: My current project on World War II came out of my last project, “Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers.” During the World War II period, I was particularly surprised by the number of stories about soldiers and sailors in the armed forces. I knew some of the most famous stories – Dorie Miller and the Tuskegee Airmen – but stories about unknown local folks who either got drafted, volunteered, did something heroic or died in service really stuck with me.
And so, when I was thinking about what I wanted to work on for the next book project, I became interested in what it would look like to tell the history of World War II from the Black perspective, both the civil rights activism that was going on in the home front but also the roles that Black men and women played in the armed forces during the war. I come at this topic as a social and cultural historian who’s interested in the really important role that the military played in African American life throughout the 20th century, and particularly during World War II.
I became interested in Confederate symbols last summer when a number of stories were coming up about Confederate monuments and the display of the Confederate flag in the military. Honestly, I was really surprised by how much information I found in my research notes and in newspaper databases about debates over the Confederate flag during World War II. In white newspapers, I was surprised by how many references there were to white troops bringing the Confederate flag with them overseas. They ran it up on flagpoles to celebrate victories, either instead of or alongside the Stars and Stripes in Europe and in the Pacific. On the flipside, the Black press was upset at these displays. That kind of back and forth just fascinated me, and was my entry point into the topic.
Probolus: Confederate symbols everywhere are offensive because they’re venerating the values of the Confederacy. But do you think there’s something especially or particularly egregious about memorials that are being used in the military?
Delmont: The thing that’s most obviously upsetting about the display of the Confederate flag in the military is that it becomes most famous during the Civil War – where the Confederacy fought against the U.S. Army. While I haven’t served myself, I can’t imagine being in the U.S. armed services and flying the flag of an opposing army that sought to destroy the U.S. Army.
I understand why it’s become so prominent in military ranks; there’s a strong white Southern tradition in the U.S. military that explains why a number of people in that institution gravitate towards the Confederate flag. But it seems particularly egregious in the military because that institution represents the entire nation. It’s not just memorializing a street corner, or the site of a specific battle, or even a school named after someone in some small town. The military is meant to represent the entire country. The Confederate flag is absolutely not a symbol that represents the country.
Probolus: You mentioned how the Confederate flag is a symbol of white Southern heritage. How would you respond to people who think the flag is a part of their heritage? As you know, there’s really no question among professional historians that the root cause of the Civil War was slavery and that these symbols were put up precisely to challenge the gains African Americans made to achieve civil rights. We see this happening after Reconstruction, as states begin to impose Jim Crow laws, and again during desegregation in the 1950s. What might you say to somebody who claims these are symbols of Southern heritage, and denies the overwhelming evidence that shows these are symbols of hate and white supremacy?
Delmont: I always try to start with the evidence. The factual record that we have from the 1860s forward with people associated with the Confederacy (or later on Confederate sympathizers) very clearly says what the flag means. People have been saying for over 150 years that the Confederate flag symbolized slavery and a break from the United States to maintain that institution. So there’s really no mystery around that.
For folks who are unwilling to hear those arguments, I don’t know that there’s a lot that’s going to persuade them. But I think for folks who might be persuadable still, if they truly believe they need the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern heritage, I would ask them why. There are a lot of great things you can praise about white heritage from the American South: music, culture, literature. You can have flags of guitars and Hank Williams and Elvis Presley and Loretta Lynn. There are so many better ways to celebrate one’s region and one’s ancestors than clinging to this particular symbol that’s deeply rooted in histories of racism and slavery.
Probolus: Today, Black Americans are the activists and organizers on the forefront of efforts to remove Confederate memorials in the U.S. But this is not the first time African Americans have advocated for the removal of Confederate symbols. How did Black troops react to and challenge the use of Confederate symbols in the military during World War II?
Delmont: During the time period I was looking at, both troops and Black journalists were very vocal in their opposition to the Confederate flag. On the home front, the Confederate flag was pretty visible and was a clear symbol of the Jim Crow segregation that African Americans were fighting vehemently against. In the war theaters where the Confederate flag appeared, Black troops and journalists were asking a lot of the same questions that people are asking now: How can you fly this alongside the Stars and Stripes? How can we be fighting a war that’s theoretically about freedom and democracy while also flying a flag that represents slavery and the legalized oppression and inhumane treatment of Black Americans?
As a historian, I like to have voices from the contemporary moment that you’re talking about. Editorials from Black newspapers from 1944 and 1945 compare the Confederate flag to the Nazi swastika and question: Why on Earth would you fly this symbol alongside the Stars and Stripes? Those are powerful words. They are powerful in 1945 and they are powerful today. They make clear that this is something people at the time recognized was wrong.
Therefore, it’s not that we’re trying to judge that era by contemporary norms. We’re trying to hold them accountable to how people at the time tried to hold them accountable. I value those perspectives for what they were sharing at the time. Those voices make clear that this is not a new struggle. It’s something that has been going on for decades.
Probolus: Why aren’t people more aware of this longer history of African American activism and struggle?
Delmont: My sense is that the mainstream media, mainstream textbook publishers and popular histories like to tell certain kinds of stories about certain historical moments. So, for World War II, by the 1980s and 1990s, there comes a sense that it was a good war. In contrast to some of the more ambiguous military conflicts the United States was involved in, like Vietnam, World War II was a much more clear-cut case of the U.S. being on the right side and fighting against a World historical evil in Nazi Germany. That’s true in some regards, and we wouldn’t want to take anything away from members of the so-called Greatest Generation.
But that encourages us not to tell a whole other set of stories that are also true. The U.S. played a crucial role in helping to defeat Nazis and bring down Hitler, but we sent a segregated military to fight that war. Black troops came home and were harassed, beaten and sometimes murdered because the United States was so committed to white supremacy. The U.S. didn’t want to make good on the promises of freedom and democracy that they were supposedly bringing to the world.
Those are hard histories, and they’re uncomfortable histories because they ask us to hold two truths in our mind at the same time. The United States could very much be on the right side against Nazi Germany, but also be on the wrong side of Jim Crow and maintaining the system of racial apartheid in its own country.
I think that’s why it’s hard in this particular case to talk honestly about why the Confederate flag was so prominent during World War II, and then why it’s never really left American culture. It continues to pop up because there’s a set of histories that circulate that tell a certain story about the Civil War that doesn’t deal honestly with the fact that it was about slavery. And that allows us to keep telling false stories in subsequent decades. I think World War II is a smaller piece of that larger story.
Probolus: I have a follow-up question about holding two difficult or contradictory beliefs at once. In March 1948, Truman signed a bill into law that opened the door for the official display of the Confederate flag in the armed forces. And then, just a few months later, he signed an executive order that desegregated the military. How do you make sense of these two seemingly contradictory actions? And what lessons does this hold for our current moment where we have, on the one hand, laws in many Southern states that are protecting Confederate symbols, and then on the other hand we have calls for reparations?
Delmont: One of the things I find most fascinating about being a historian are these historical paradoxes. And the more you dig into them, they’re not really paradoxes at all. They’re just part of the structure and realty of United States history.
There have always been these strongly competing forces that have very, very different definitions of what the country should be about. In the post-war moment, as you mention, Truman signs a bill at the prompting of a set of (primarily Southern-based) legislators to authorize the display of Confederate symbols in the military. He does that and then he signs the executive order desegregating the military at the same time. He ends up losing the Democrats in the South, and that leads to the breakaway of the Dixiecrats from the Democratic party.
I think that’s surprising in one way. But on the other hand, it’s not as surprising because Truman, like almost every other president – particularly those who are on the center-liberal side – had to walk a very fine line of trying to acknowledge the very real civil rights demands of Black Americans while also trying to accommodate the sentiments of white Americans who wanted to elevate symbols that ran counter to those same civil rights demands. Part of it was political calculations, but I think for someone like Truman (and he was not the only person involved in this) he might not see those as being irreconcilable. You could have the Confederate flag displayed in an integrated military. That would just be the kind of compromise that the U.S. was going to have to reach.
Our present is an expanded version of similar debates that have been going on for decade that again are rooted in fundamentally different visions about what the United States is, who deserves to be called an American, and how we understand and reckon with our history. I think the calls for reparations are rooted in a very real desire to account for and seek repair; it’s not just monetary. It’s a moral repair for the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. The folks who are in favor of keeping a lot of the Confederate monuments are clinging to a version of our nation’s history that doesn’t want to deal honestly with the uglier parts of it.
Probolus: I’m curious to know more about how your research might speak to folks who are trying to reckon with that ugly part of our nation’s history generally and in the military specifically? The SPLC has recently identified over 78 Confederate memorials currently active in the military. Does your research provide any insight into strategies that people in the military can use to remove these symbols of hate from their institutions? Similarly, what does history tell us about some of the challenges that they might face?
Delmont: The stories we tell about the past matter. In this context, the reason there are so many military bases named after Confederate generals, and the reason there are so many Confederate-related symbols and memorials tied up with the military, is because from the early twentieth century all the way up to the very recent present, people made intentional decisions that Confederate history was the history they wanted to recognize.
The military today looks much more racially and ethnically diverse than it did in World War II, in the 1970s and even as recently as the 1990s. That’s not to say racism doesn’t exist in the military. But the demographics of the force are much different today than they have been in the past. I think I would start conversations about removing Confederate memorials from the military by recognizing who’s currently there and then questioning: What stories about our military’s past do we want to tell today that reflect those demographics?
An easy way to move past a lot of the Confederate names would be looking for Medal of Honor winners or other awardees who served at those bases or installations. Any of those figures would be much more noble to acknowledge than folks who fought for the Confederacy. And they’re rooted in those specific places.
If that doesn’t strike people’s fancy, rather than using names, the military could use the values and ideas it upholds. However you get there, we must deal honestly with the fact that these names were chosen at specific times. I would hope that we’re not that country anymore. I would hope that the military isn’t that military anymore. If the military wants to change, they can make intentional decisions to do so, in the same way people made those intentional decisions to name them after Confederates some decades ago.
The last thing I would say is that I think it’s important that the name is true to the institution. The military has a strong history and set of values that people associate with it. A lot has happened since the Confederacy. There are so many people who have been associated with the U.S. Military that would be better people to honor in a way that’s true to the values of that institution.
Probolus: Absolutely. I’d love to learn more about what you think should happen to Confederate memorials on public land more generally. Another way of framing this is: Does your research on Confederate symbols have applications beyond the military?
My take on this is: These are local conversations. That’s not to say that I want local people to ignore the broader national conversations that are going on. But I think different local communities are going to come to different decisions that work best for them. In some places, keeping the memorials with some explanation of what they’re doing there (if that’s what people in the community believe is best) can work.
Broadly speaking though, I’m hard pressed to think about why we need things named after Confederate soldiers or generals, why there need to be statues or monuments in public space. We have plenty of other venues in which we talk about history: books, museums, media. When people want to know the actual history of the Confederacy, they don’t need to go to a monument.
And so I don’t subscribe to the “if you take things down you lose history” belief. We have plenty of other venues for telling that history. There are other isolated cases people where want to keep the monuments there: to do counter art or something different. But broadly speaking I think things are put up at specific historical moments to honor different legacies. The Confederacy is not a legacy that our nation should be honoring.
Probolus: That makes a lot of sense. But what about communities who want to keep these symbols and yet their understanding of historical evidence is wrong? How do you reconcile that?
Delmont: That’s really hard. It’s particularly hard if the people who are leading those conversations in a community aren’t engaged with contemporary historical scholarship or aren’t speaking for all members of a community. In almost every community where there’s a Confederate monument, there are going to be people who have to walk by it every day or engage with it every day who feel deeply hurt and offended that it’s there.
This is naive in its way, but I still think encouraging communities to think about what other types of stories they might want to tell about themselves is one of the only paths forward when you reach that kind of dead end. There are so many different things that we can honor in public space, and we don’t need to honor things permanently and forever. We can rotate things through. It just isn’t true that because someone puts something up in the 1920s, we have to have it forever. There’s hardly any other part of our physical or natural environment that we treat in that way. We’re constantly changing, tearing down things and rebuilding them.
And so I don’t think monuments have some sort of special place that they can never be touched. But I think a good-faith way to engage different local communities is thinking more broadly about what kind of very, very local stories might be told that more accurately reflect what the community wants to be about now.
Probolus: I appreciate that focus on local history because I think too often that gets lost. Even the process of doing the research and finding out about the history of your place can bring history to life and give people a greater appreciation for the more difficult histories and stories that we need to tell.
Delmont: I think that’s what I like most about being a historian. It’s the research and the process. When you actually get into it, history’s very messy. It’s not a neat and tidy story that we’re able to tell, and the more that you can expose everyday people to that, the easier it is for them to get an appreciation for the vibrancy of people who lived in the past and to hopefully have fresh conversations about how we want to engage with history.
If these debates are just “pro” or “con” monument, that’s really boring and it doesn’t really do much. But if we asked one hundred different communities about how we want communities to engage with history, that would lead to a hundred really, really interesting results.
Probolus: What you’re saying is reminding me of a public historian, Denise D. Meringolo, who encourages us to think about how can we create spaces for conversation and discourse instead of erecting new monuments. If a monument is always a symbol of power, are there other ways that we can be creating community and telling these histories? That really resonated with what you were just mentioning.
Delmont: That’s a nice way to frame it.
Probolus: So I want to jump back a moment, or maybe forward, rather, and think about the the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. Conversations about this moment seem to focus on the recent past: The reasons for extremism in the military can be explained by the Trump administration’s tacit support of white supremacy and of the way social media platforms have facilitated the rise of right-wing extremists. While there are obvious important differences between your research on Confederate symbols in World War II and right-wing extremism today, your research suggests to me that to truly understand the causes of extremism (and its connection to white supremacy) in the military, we have to go a lot further back. I’m curious to know what you think about that.
Delmont: Thinking about World War II, certainly one of the stories we don’t normally tell about the war is that for a lot of white Americans, they did not see it to be about democracy and equality for all Americans. In fact, it was the exact opposite. Whereas Black Americans were fighting what they call the Double Victory campaign – victory over racism at home and victory over fascism abroad – most white Americans understood it as what I would say is a single victory campaign. In other words, it was about a military victory over Japan, Germany and Italy and maintaining the status quo at home.
That meant in many ways that both within the South and beyond the South, Jim Crow segregation and that system of racial apartheid were actually strengthened intentionally during the war. For average white Americans who were drafted into the military at the time, I wouldn’t go so far as to call them all extremists. But a lot of them intentionally upheld a system of racialized white supremacy. More recently, there’s been research that has shown post-Vietnam, there are some pretty strong connections between the U.S. military and extremist groups. This happens when recruiting folks, but more often it’s when folks leave the military and they are then recruited into extremist or white nationalist groups.
I think those are things that have to be treated delicately. It’s easy to make broad sweeping generalizations about people who are involved in an organization as large as the U.S. military. But we also have to deal honestly with the fact that people who hold extremist views with regards to white nationalism can be fully part of mainstream organizations like the military. We’re generations removed from when white supremacists would make themselves clearly announced with KKK outfits. But we need to remember that members of the KKK were also “upstanding members” of their communities and were often very much middle class. So I think that’s a roundabout way of trying to say that you’re right: White nationalism in our present comes from a deep, deep wellspring in our county that intersects at different points with the U.S. military.
Probolus: As professional historians, we reject the idea of a progress narrative. In other words, we don’t accept that civil rights, or the desegregation of the military, or any other event was inevitable. Instead, we interrogate all the possible outcomes to understand why one was realized despite other options. Based on your research, what might you say to activists and those in the military who believe that racism is so deeply entrenched in our institutions that their efforts to remove Confederate memorials are futile? Or, conversely, how would you react to people who assume that the military will eventually remove these symbols because the arc of history leans towards justice?
Delmont: For me the lesson from the civil rights movement broadly is that change happens because everyday people organize together and keep fighting for it on a day-to-day basis, over years and in some cases over generations. That change is fitful at times. Sometimes it can move more rapidly. Sometimes it moves forward with key legislative victories. And then there’s immediately a rollback or a pushback because of organized resistance to it. Change is almost always disregarded or fought against by the mainstream. We hold Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders in a different regard today than a lot of white media and politicians did in the ’50s and ’60s. A lot of folks were definitely not on board with civil rights advancements in that time period. Changes are almost never welcomed with an open door.
I also think it’s true that changes that don’t seem possible five or ten years down the road become possible through a combination of dogged effort and, in some cases, context and luck. If you get the right people in the right leadership positions in organizations with enough grassroots movement and the stars align, things can happen.
The desegregation of the military is an example of this. If you look at 1940, 1941, just before the U.S. enters the war, they could have integrated the military at that point. There was no logistical reason not to. It was actually logistically more complicated to keep a segregated military because you had to send double of everything to wherever you’re going. The only reason to keep it was because they didn’t want to offend the sensibilities of white Americans.
So, from that point, from 1940, it’s unclear when the military will ever be integrated. Black Americans are calling for this. They are organizing but it’s not clear that’s going to happen. It’s still not integrated at the end of World War II. The U.S. and Allies win, but it’s still a segregated military. But by ’48, there’s been over a decade of intense pressure, Truman recognizes that there’s a political motivation to do it as well. (You have more Black voters in these swing states.)
And it happens through a pretty consistently organized protest with some support from the White House. Certainly not everyone is happy about it, both within the military but also (primarily) in the South. But it positions the military and the White House in a leadership position on saying that this is the direction that the military is going to go.
Desegregating the military is important in that time period because it’s the first federal office to become integrated. It’s before the Brown vs. Board decision. It’s before you have public space and employment legislation from the 1960s. It is pathbreaking in that way. So I often describe it as both a decade late – they could have done it in ’38 just as well – but also a decade early, before a lot of other things were integrated.
When you look at that history from today, there’s certainly a lot of work that the military and other organizations need to do in regard to racism in their own spaces. But for folks who are trying to change it, I think the lesson you can learn is that you have to just keep pushing on a day-to-day basis. That you have to be maintaining that sense of urgency that things need to happen right away. But also maintain the persistence that recognizes things don’t usually happen overnight. Those are the twin things you’re trying to hold together. You can’t be complacent and think that it’ll happen just inevitably. But you also have to recognize that this takes consistent effort from people who are putting pressure from a number of different angles to actually see these changes.
Probolus: That reminds me of what you said earlier about the way we’re telling our histories because so often we forget about that daily struggle and the everyday folks who are pushing to make change happen. I find that really inspiring. And I feel like it’s so important that we make these stories heard and known so that we can challenge the sense that things are so deeply entrenched and that change is impossible. I want to continue holding up and thinking about the everyday, continuous struggle ordinary people made to fight for civil rights. Hopefully this can inspire grassroots activists working to remove monuments and for other racial justice causes.
Delmont: Young people today have seen the resurgence of very visible racism in public life. But they’ve also seen very courageous organizing by Black Lives Matter and affiliated groups for nearly a decade. You don’t need to look back to the ’50s and ’60s to understand the importance of this kind of grassroots organizing, and so it’s not just about a single person giving an amazing speech. That’s never how history turned. It’s sometimes how it gets boiled down in a textbook or in a documentary but it’s always about the kind of day-to-day, grassroots, non-glamorous, oftentimes boring people who don’t agree on things. That kind of churn, that’s how things change.
We have seen plenty of examples of that all across the country with Black Lives Matter and other organizations. There are a hundred reasons to be discouraged when you look at the news, right? It’s easy to think that things can’t possibly change or they’re only going to get worse. But if you’re looking for reasons to be hopeful and optimistic, it’s in that. It’s in the day-to-day work and the belief that different futures are possible if you’re willing to work for them.
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