Photo Credit: Karen B. Jones/Shutterstock.com
Kevin Seefried, a goateed white man dressed in jeans, a dark hoodie, and a brown outdoor vest, casually strolled through the atrium of the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. Over his shoulder was slung an oversized, six-foot-long version of the so-called “Stars and Bars,” the battle flag of the defeated nineteenth-century Confederacy. One of the most famous images from the storming of the US Capitol freezes Seefried in mid-stride. In some versions, a slight smile is on his lips. In others, he is speaking or shouting. A large portrait of John C. Calhoun, the historic champion of slaveholding, looms over his shoulder.
For many, this image defines that day. Still, if we focus on it – and not on Black responses to that same flag over history – we run the risk of missing something very important.
The modern history of this flag begins in the wake of World War II, after a push by Civil Rights leaders led President Truman to desegregate the US military. In response, some southern Democrats – so called “Dixiecrats” – promised to split the Democratic Party. As their new flag, they adopted the Stars and Bars.
While civil rights reforms advanced at the federal level, variants of the flag were incorporated into the landscapes of Southern statehouses and into the iconography of the South itself, resurfacing the original meaning of the Confederacy: the state’s absolute right to support white supremacy.
Since then, the flag has been ubiquitous. It was present at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where white men with khakis and crew cuts also carried medieval shields and Nazi flags. And it has been a regular feature at Trump rallies over the past five years, animated by the former President’s enthusiasm for racial revanchism and his appreciation of Army bases named after Confederate generals.
On January 6, held in the hands of Kevin Seefried, the Stars and Bars expressed a technicolor wish for the negation of Black life.
The iterative power of that flag – its regular return and popularity as an icon of violence and white supremacy, its seemingly endless circulation – should prompt us to think about what enables racist imagery to endure and to flourish. We already have some partial answers: Regional climates of fear and anxiety. Infrastructures of misinformation. Profound demographic and political change. Rhetorics of scarcity. And a perverse understanding of national history, bridging mythology and ideology.
These factors ensure that this flag makes some of us shudder, or tear up, or quake with rage – even as it inspires others to display it defiantly, as if the Stars and Bars could magically halt the demographic transformation of the United States into a so-called minority-majority country, and the associated concern that white material advantage will be diminished, that white culture will be erased, and that white voices will be silenced.
Of course, a durable icon is not an irrefutable one. And symbols of white supremacy that are meant to clutter our visual horizon and terrorize some of us can also provoke and inspire in unpredictable ways.
Black artists, activists, and citizens immediately understood the threat posed by the Confederate flag’s resurgence in the postwar moment, and they mobilized clandestinely against it, determined, where possible, to remove it from their sight. Local newspapers from the 1950s and beyond reveal that these symbols were routinely stolen from front porches, statehouses, and gravesites. In 1960, at the opening of the Civil War Centennial, ten were stolen from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Fourteen more were stolen in Baldwin County, Georgia, where they had been hanging from lampposts.
One Confederate flag, hanging in Portsmouth, Virginia, was stolen so often over the course of a month in 1961 that town officials were forced to escalate their protection of it. After the first few flags were stolen, the halyards that held the line were re-fastened halfway up the pole. When that proved insufficient, the city manager hung the flag with metal cord, spotwelded barbed wire at the base, and coated the pole with non-drying paint, hoping that he might discourage the vandals. Activists promptly broke off the pole at its base and carried the whole thing away. In its place, they left another pennant, which read, derisively: “Save Your Confederate Money, Boys.”
The escalation – nighttime, off-camera struggles to remove or destroy the flag, and daylight state efforts to protect it – was a narrative through-line of the late Jim Crow era.
More recently, this work has moved into the public eye. A man – calling himself a representative from “the Justice League” – stole the flag from the state capitol in Alabama in 1990, and told the press that “the South won’t rise again.” In that same year, at the founding of the Negro Association for Progress in Austin, Texas, forty Black organizers stood on the Confederate flag in front 100 White audience members, calling it “a symbol of rape, murder, and burning,” and then “set it afire.”
In April of 2002, a Black man wearing a Santa Claus suit climbed a ladder on the statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina, and lit the Confederate flag hanging at the Monument to the Confederate Dead ablaze. Surrounded by a dozen officers, the man said he was burning it “for the children,” adding “why do they have to learn about prejudice?” In 2015, artist and activist John Sims encouraged a national campaign to bury the old flag on July 4 – and re-colorized it in Black, Red, and Green, renaming it the African Battle Flag. In countless examples, then, Confederate flag burning has become a staple of Black protest against racial discrimination and structural marginalization.
I am recounting this history to underline how Black citizens understood the dangerous potential of the Confederate flag from the very moment it was hung atop statehouses in the South. From the start, they found ways to attack it, showing astonishing imagination in the age of Jim Crow and beyond. Instead of just tearing it down, burning it, or burying it, they also used it to craft spectacular counter-images.
Consider, for instance, this photograph of Bree Newsome, art student, filmmaker, and Black activist, balanced in broad daylight at the top of a flagpole:
She has a slight smile on her face. One arm holds the Confederate flag out like a prize, and the other grips the pole with determination. Her climbing harness and helmet showcase her planning. In the background, we see the classical façade of the South Carolina statehouse.
Newsome posed for this picture on June 28, 2015, just over ten days after Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, murdered nine Black men and women gathered together for bible study at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. Photographs of Roof had circulated in the days after the shooting – photographs featuring him posing with the Stars and Bars, among other symbols of white supremacy. Angered and determined, Newsome and a team of activists had begun planning their response almost immediately.
Getting to the top of the flagpole required orchestration. Because of previous efforts to destroy it, the pole was surrounded by a small metal fence. Newsome and James Tyson, her photographer and collaborator, had practiced climbing just such a fence and ascending the pole for two days, knowing that she would need to get up quickly to evade early capture. A full media group was present to capture the day on film – and to broadcast it around the world.
By design, once the police arrived, Tyson and the rest of the team stood back, ensuring that the spotlight was on Newsome, the Black activist. “The Lord is my life and my salvation,” she called out, reading Psalm 27, as she descended, “whom shall I fear?” And then, with her feet back on the ground, she was enveloped by local officials – a capitol groundskeeper, a state police officer, a parks officer.
“I removed the flag,” Newsome told the press later, “not only in defiance of those who enslaved my ancestors in the southern United States, but also in defiance of the oppression that continues against black people globally . . . I did it because I am free.”
There is something equivalent to joy in these small acts, or an undeniable sense of electric passion, which the critic Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman calls “the Black ecstatic.” Newsome’s ascent was a piece of radical performance art, planned for public consumption, scripted to be read and re-read, primed to be meme-able, to endlessly circulate online. The image that should stick in your mind these days isn’t the flag itself – it’s the Black activist enthusiastically tearing it down in broad daylight.
Matthew Pratt Guterl is Professor of Africana Studies and American Studies at Brown, and the author, most recently, of Seeing Race in America (2013) and Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe (2014).