Significantly, it is not a new development. Nor is it a symbolic gesture.
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.
Dickens, an African American, was responding, in part, to the violence that broke out in the Bronx. What began as a peaceful demonstration against segregation had been met by angry White youth who not only waved battle flags and donned Confederate kepis; one went so far as to wear a Klansman’s hood. In sponsoring the legislation, the assemblyman cited the flag as a symbol of hatred and slavery that “is degrading to our democracy and is being used mainly by persons seeking to stir up bitterness and tensions.”
Many White Southerners excoriated Dickens for the bill; his office received numerous letters, along with postcards bearing the image of the flag. A person from Florida sent his wife a bumper sticker emblazoned with the battle flag along with a note that read: “This attractive sticker is for Mr. Dickens’ auto.”
Lloyd Dickens’ legislation failed to pass, but the bill’s existence revealed the inroads Confederate symbols had made into the north, where resistance to civil rights was demonstrable. The truth of the matter is that some White Northerners were no different from Southern segregationists in this regard, as both deployed the battle flag to intimidate African Americans seeking racial equality through employment and voting rights.
The display of the Confederate flags in New York should not come as a shock nearly 60 years later. The racial divisiveness of the last year, highlighted by the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, has been further stoked by debates over Confederate symbols — both monuments and flags.
What was long thought to be a regional issue limited to states below the Mason-Dixon Line, came roaring to the national stage in 2015 with the murder of the Emanuel Nine in Charleston, South Carolina, by a young White nationalist whose reverence for Confederate symbols became the subject of discussion among GOP presidential candidates and led to the removal of the battle flag from state house grounds that July. Then in 2017, the Unite the Right rally, politicized these symbols once more. Among the White nationalists who arrived in Charlottesville under the pretense of defending the removal of a monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee, were hundreds of White men who had no claim to Southern heritage even as they carried these banners in protest.
Those who criticize New York’s law fail to challenge the notion that the Confederate flag, which has found White supporters far beyond the South’s borders, is a symbol of racial hatred used to instill fear. Any legal challenges to the ban will not change that fact.