After nine Black churchgoers were gunned down in Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate battle flag is driving a wedge between neo-Confederates and free-market neoliberals.
The Confederate battle flag became the banner of the White supremacist South during the desegregation of the 1960s, has since been flown on several Southern state capitols, and has become an emotionally-charged White Southern cultural icon. In recent weeks, it has become the target of much of the country’s revulsion at the June 17 assassinations of South Carolina state senator Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight other Black citizens in a Charleston, South Carolina church. The removal of the flag from state capitols, and its image from retail store shelves, has sparked some anger among neo-Confederates who want the symbol displayed prominently in civic and popular culture.
Bad for business
Walmart announced June 22 that it would move to take Confederate flag-themed merchandise off shelves, making it the first major retailer to do so. Other retailers, including Sears, eBay, Etsy and Amazon have since followed suit. Yet Walmart is a company based in the South, and has built its corporate culture around conservative Christian values. One could be forgiven for being a bit perplexed by the retail giant’s rush to be first to ban the Confederate battle flag from its supply chain.
In a similar move, albeit with less fanfare, Alabama’s Republican Governor Robert Bentley ordered June 24 that all Confederate flags—including the battle flag—be removed from the state capitol grounds in Montgomery, where they had been flown over a Civil War memorial since 19941. The AL.com news site quoted Bentley’s low-key public statement June 24 after the flags came down:
“Asked his reasons for taking it down and if it included what happened in Charleston last week, the governor said, ‘Yes, partially this is about that. This is the right thing to do. We are facing some major issues in this state regarding the budget and other matters that we need to deal with. This had the potential to become a major distraction as we go forward. I have taxes to raise, we have work to do. And it was my decision that the flag needed to come down.’”
It is interesting that Bentley mentioned taxes and economics in his statement, rather than simply condemning the flag as a symbol of the South’s violently racist past.
In the case of Walmart, one might well ask what economic or political benefit the company gets from making such a move. In recent years, Walmart has repeatedly done the symbolic “right thing” as long as it can find another way to benefit financially. For example, Walmart announced in February that it would raise the wages of its lowest-paid U.S.-based employees to $9 per hour – a move that turned out to be mostly a symbolic gesture to counteract its anti-worker image. In the case of the Confederate battle flag, vendors are telling the press that the sales of flag merchandise were never enough to justify angering customers who have been outraged by the South Carolina massacre
With Governor Bentley’s move to take the flag down, and his remarks about having “taxes to raise,” we see that neoliberal politicians in the South are coming to the same conclusion. Alabama is becoming more of a player on the global economic stage, and a threat to that ascendancy has to be taken seriously. Foreign-owned corporations such as Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, and Airbus all have factories in the state. The Montgomery Advertiser reported recently that such foreign investments in Alabama might not have happened at all if not for the 1993 removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol building. “At the groundbreaking for the plant in May 1994, Mercedes-Benz executives told [then Governor] Folsom that it would have been difficult for them to come to Alabama if the Confederate flag still flew over the Capitol.”
Governor Bentley is well aware of the optics. In fact, travelers on United Airlines in July will find a 32-page supplement in their in-flight Hemispheres magazine titled “Dossier”, which the magazine promises will “examine Alabama’s diverse businesses and industries, and showcase the economies of the state’s major metropolitan regions.” Featured are Alabama business leaders, economic development boosters, and politicians—including Governor Bentley.
Neo-Confederates, and others who have nostalgia for the vanquished Confederacy, are unhappy with this targeting of their battle flag. They have rallied in South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Florida. One Alabama demonstrator, Ronnie Simmons, called Governor Bentley a “scallywag” – a Civil War-era term for a Southerner who collaborated with Northern forces.
Others condemn the recent killings in Charleston, but say they feel the Confederate battle flag is being unfairly scapegoated. The New York Times reported:
“Jack Hicklin, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who had a knife holster and a handgun in his pocket, came in looking for Confederate flag tank tops after learning that Walmart would no longer carry them.
‘We got all these killings and people are worried about the damn flag?’ he said.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans is using the flag controversy as an opportunity to fundraise and to grow its ranks; in recent weeks, it posted a video on its website offering discounted memberships.
Dr. Michael Hill, president of the neo-Confederate, White nationalist, and theocratic League of the South, goes further in a blog post, laying the blame for the flag’s desecration at the feet of “Southern ‘conservatives’ who blindly follow the Republican Party.” Hill continues, claiming that the GOP “take sincere Southern conservatives (and others) and lead them down blind alleys to render them harmless to the Establishment, of which the GOP is part. Their time, energy, and money is siphoned off into nothing. If this were not so, America would not be a post-Christian cultural sewer and the South’s symbols would not be under attack, largely by Republicans!” Hill’s League of the South has created an armed paramilitary unit, and he has previously called for the formation of death squads.
The disavowal of the Confederate battle flag by Republican politicians such as Governor Bentley or South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley could present an opening, or signal a positive coming trend, wherein the mainstream conservative movement breaks its pattern of silence around, and implicit support of, White nationalist violence. As Naomi Braine, assistant professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, points out in her recent Public Eye article, Terror Network or Lone Wolf?, “Right-wing militants…benefit from the power of mainstream conservatives.” More specifically, Braine refers to “the conservative politicians and writers who see discussions of right-wing political violence as a threat to their own constituency, downplaying the severity of the threat from the Far Right.”
The Confederacy stood for the preservation of slavery, a violent, dehumanizing economic institution that treated human beings who had been kidnapped from Africa—as well as their descendants—as chattel property. In advocating a return to either a Confederate or segregationist South, neo-Confederates distort the facts about slavery and Jim Crow and, as Braine explains, the perspective they promote helps to create the conditions for a massacre such as the one in Charleston.
But neither let us applaud Bentley and Walmart too vigorously. They acted out of economic self-interest, not out of concern for Black people. As PRA’s late founder, Jean Hardisty, noted in her 2014 essay in The Public Eye, the neoliberal project of deregulating corporations so they can compete in a free-market race to the bottom on wages has undermined democracy, and produced a present-day underclass of workers around the globe. These workers are paid next-to-nothing, forced to live in squalid and unsafe workcamps, and frequently even forced to leave their home countries in search of work. In its global enterprises, neoliberal capital discards working people, not even registering their human needs in its accounting of overhead costs.
As violent as the neoliberal free-market project is, however, its rejection of the symbols of White supremacist violence could make conservative politicians less comfortable about remaining silent in the face of neo-Confederate and other White nationalist movements. If this happens, it could be a beneficial side effect of the scorched-earth policies of global unregulated capitalism.
PRA researcher L. Cole Parke contributed to this report.
 According to the Montgomery Advertiser, several different Confederate flags have been flown over the actual state capitol since the early 1960s: “Former Governor John Patterson ordered the first national Confederate flag, known as the Stars and Bars, to fly over the Alabama State Capitol in 1961, as part of the Civil War centennial. Montgomery served as the capital of the Confederacy from February to May 1861.” Two years later, militant segregationist Governor George Wallace ordered the iconic and controversial Confederate battle flag to be raised over the state capitol as well, where the flags remained until 1993, when they were moved to the war memorial.