An image of a chain link fence with a washed over red background

Jason Morgan Ward

On September 12, 1920, armed white men abducted a black prisoner from the Clarke County jail in Quitman, Mississippi. The captive, Will Echols, had been transferred from a neighboring county “for safekeeping” after the Mississippi Supreme Court stayed his execution. Convicted of murdering a white night watchman at a local lumber plant, Echols narrowly avoided the gallows when another black convict confessed to the crime. Less than forty-eight hours later, Echols’s bullet-riddled corpse hung from a pole alongside a rural highway. Before pumping dozens of rounds into their victim, the mob reportedly shouted, “To Hell with the Supreme Court,” and forced Echols to kiss a Confederate battle flag.

Although they are separated by nearly a century, Echols’s killers are kindred spirits of Dylann Roof, the twenty-one-year-old mass murderer fond of posing with banners of various white supremacist  regimes—particularly the Confederate States of America. Roof’s June 2015 shooting spree at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church did not spark the race war he desired, but the tragedy did ignite renewed debate over the links between white supremacy, violence, and one of the most divisive symbols in modern American history—the Confederate battle flag. Indeed, the massacre gave new momentum to campaigns to remove the flag from government grounds and strike the image from state-sanctioned and state-issued items such as license plates. More surprising, those demands resulted in prompt action in South Carolina and several other states. The Charleston massacre brought together an unprecedented chorus of voices, from “Black Lives Matter” activists to Republican legislators, who demanded that we finally put the flag and its bloody legacy behind us. Less surprising, the campaign drew the ire of the apologists and defenders who maintain that the flag remains a symbol of heritage and not hate.

If the uncertain future of the battle flag divides these camps, the flag’s defenders and detractors have demonstrated remarkable consensus on at least one aspect of the flag’s history. From activists and celebrities who have joined the call for the flag’s removal to neo-Confederates and those currying their political favor, commentators have consistently emphasized a mid-twentieth-century metamorphosis engineered by diehard segregationists, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis. These extremists, so the story goes, transformed a historic symbol of the Civil War into an emblem of racist defiance. Historians, of course, bear some responsibility for this popular notion, and the chasm between Civil War and civil rights in the flag’s story reminds us that symbol and meaning is never static. Yet in that yawning gap, we can find ample evidence that the flag remained what it had always been since its creation—a banner for a white supremacist regime that could not exist without constant violence.

For the flag’s defenders, the narrative of a latter-day mutation serves to distinguish supposedly nonracist expressions from “extremist” distortions and to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the battle flag’s historical origins as a banner for an unabashedly white supremacist crusade. Those who seek to remove the flag may differ in their regard for the Confederacy—and would certainly contend that the emblem could never be separated from the racial regime it represented—but they too seem content to gloss over the eighty-plus years separating the surrender at Appomattox from the segregationists of the post–World War II era. This narrative gap emphasizes the pivotal role of civil rights–era white supremacists in popularizing the battle flag as a symbol of racist defiance, but it gives these latter-day Confederates too much credit for creativity. Furthermore, a fast-forward through decades of disfranchisement, segregation, and rampant racial violence obscures those Jim Crow–era whites who rallied round the flag or those black southerners, like Echols, who had it shoved in their face to remind them of their place.

People celebrating with confederate flags

As a historian who moved from studying the segregationist movement to recovering stories of Jim Crow–era racial violence, I am reminded often that the distance between the Civil War and civil rights is shorter than many realize or care to admit. The decades separating the two “Sixties” of our nation’s history reveal that there was never a point at which the flag’s meaning and usage could be separated from the white supremacist rebellion that lost the war but won the peace. The Confederate dream of black subjugation by any means necessary lived on in the bloody overthrow of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and white backlash to the civil rights revolution. White supremacists, like those who abducted and murdered Echols, needed neither a political strategist nor a marketing consultant to rebrand the battle flag. They knew the flag’s true meaning, as it turns out, all along.

The in-between years matter most urgently in Mississippi, where the battle flag still flies high despite calls, across racial and party lines, to bring it down. Whereas Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama officially adopted the Confederate emblem in the 1950s or 1960s—either by flying it on state grounds or, in the Peach State’s case, incorporating it into the state flag—Mississippi’s legislature adopted its current flag in the 1890s. As the flag debate elsewhere returned consistently to legislators’ anti-civil rights motives, some Mississippi officials continue to invoke their flag’s date of adoption—1894—as a tacit, even self-explanatory, defense of their forefathers’ motives. Unlike the reactionary latecomers elsewhere who adopted the Confederate emblem only when faced with a civil rights threat, Mississippians presumably embraced the battle flag in decades before that storm arrived.

While historians have noted the murky details surrounding theadoption of the 1894 flag, no serious scholar would argue that the 1890swere an era of racial tranquility. Whatever the legislators’ immediate provocation, the decade marked the apex of white supremacy campaigns across the South. Mississippi led the way with an 1890 constitutional convention that adopted a web of disfranchisement schemes designed, in the words of future governor and U.S. senator James K. Vardaman, “to eliminate the nigger from politics.” A few weeks later, southern senators on Capitol Hill provided a preview of civil rights–era filibusters when they held the floor for thirty-three days to kill a Republican-backed “force bill,” which would have authorized federal officials to oversee elections and protect black voters. Instead, mobs in Mississippi and elsewhere forced African Americans into a newly prescribed place. In her pioneering lynching expose A Red Record (1895), Ida B. Wells reported a growing wave of mob violence across the South across a three-year period (1892–1894) and provided ample evidence that her native Mississippi had vaulted once again to the vanguard. By the time state legislators adopted the new flag in 1894, they had elevated Vardaman—arguably the most vicious white supremacist in the state’s political history—to Speaker of the House.

To expect a state flag birthed in this political climate to inspire anything other than hostility and defiance is asking much indeed. Yet Mississippi legislators had not remade the Confederate emblem so much as they had embraced its spirit. Indeed, while the campaign to erect Confederate monuments became the primary vehicle for the flag’s popularization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, white southerners understood the direct link between the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and Jim Crow. In Clarke County, just a few years before local mobs lynched half a dozen black victims in the span of twenty-four months, a local newspaper editor and memorial association secretary commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Confederate surrender at Appomattox with an account of the postwar struggle against “a dangerous, ignorant foe… the negro.” He recounted “amusing incidents” of whippings, beatings, and shootings—many of them on Election Day—that taught blacks their place in a new order. “Every blow the white man struck the negro,” he concluded, “later rebounded as a blessing to him.”

That mix of antistatist defiance and racist brutality collided in the lynching of Will Echols. Few of his killers lived long enough to wave a battle flag at a segregationist rally in the 1950s or to thrust one in the face of a civil rights protester in the 1960s, but somehow someone knew that it was worth bringing to a lynching in 1920. They lived, after all, in a state where white vigilantes had already driven out the state’s earliest NAACP branch leaders. They lived in the wake of the Ku Klux Klan’s rebirth, inspired in part by a blockbuster film, Birth of a Nation, that seared Lost Cause mythology into the public consciousness. Thomas Dixon, the North Carolina novelist whose Reconstruction-era tales of dashing Klansmen and marauding Negroes inspired the film, taught Americans that the price of white supremacy was constant violence. When North Carolina state troopers apprehended Dylann Roof in the author’s hometown—on Thomas Dixon Boulevard, no less—that bloody legacy came full circle.

For racial terrorists across generations, lessons in violence were lessons in politics. For Dixon, the central theme of southern history remained an imperative to resist external threats to the racial status quo. In telling the Supreme Court—in Mississippi and presumably beyond—to go to hell, that mob in Clarke County demanded the prerogative to keep that threat at bay. Reaching back to the Civil War and Reconstruction, that fear expressed itself repeatedly in the form of a flag. Thirteen years before the Dixiecrats festooned their rallies with Confederate emblems, an aging Thomas Dixon joined a smattering of anti-New Deal hardliners at a quixotic “Grass Roots Convention.” Convinced that communists had infiltrated the government, Dixon worked day and night on a new novel in which a black Marxist “Nat Turner Legion” would overrun the South. From the dais, Dixon warned a half-empty auditorium that Franklin Roosevelt would force another Reconstruction on the South. Behind him, a giant battle flag draped the stage.

No one saw Will Echols’s body after the authorities retrieved it. Local officials demonstrated similar haste after a quadruple lynching that took place just a few miles away. They buried the victims, two young men and two pregnant women, on the outskirts of a white cemetery in unmarked graves. Just across the wrought iron fence, a monument to “Our Confederate Dead” still casts its shadows on the headstones of at least a few lynch mob members and the occasional Sons of Confederate Veterans battle flag marker. That scene speaks volumes about what locals have chosen to remember and forget, but it also reminds us that the battle flag remains the symbol of our unfinished reckoning with race and violence for good reason.

JASON MORGAN WARD is an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University​, where the Confederate flag emblem still flies on campus.