New York Ban on Confederate Imagery is More than a Symbolic Gesture

tags: African American history, Confederacy

Karen L. Cox is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of the forthcoming book, No Common Ground: Confronting the Legacy of Confederate Monuments (UNC Press, 2021).

Last Thursday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation prohibiting Confederate flags and other "symbols of hate" from being displayed or sold on state-owned property, including the state fairgrounds. The only exception is when such symbols appear in books or museums, where they may be used for "education or historical purposes."

Significantly, it is not a new development. Nor is it a symbolic gesture.

Critics of the ban have called out the law as a violation of free speech. Those critiques overlook or dismiss outright a crucial point of history. The law has generated more than criticism -- there is ongoing debate about the constitutionality of the law on free speech grounds -- but that debate hasn't addressed the necessary historical context here.

While many people primarily associate Confederate imagery, very often the battle flag, with White Southerners who have used them to intimidate African Americans in their fight for racial justice since the 19th century, the New York ban illustrates that the use of this emblem for similar purposes has found a home far beyond the borders of the former Confederacy.

Cuomo and the backers of this measure aren't the first New Yorkers to recognize that the Confederate battle flag is a Northern problem, too.

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, in the summer of 1963, civil rights activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were picketing a White Castle in the Bronx when they were met by a large crowd of White teenagers, many of whom were photographed waving the Confederate battle flag. In response to what he described as this "hoodlum demonstration," Amos Basel, an attorney running for councilman at large in Manhattan, called for a city ordinance banning the sale or display of the Confederate flag except for use in museums. "The Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery of the Negro," as well as a "symbol of racism and segregation," Basel commented, adding that the flag used by the teens was being used to "incite people against the pickets."


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