Humans have used symbols to represent ideas and general concepts longer than there have been written languages. But sometimes, the meaning for a given symbol can change greatly, and sometimes that meaning can change in what seems like the blink of an eye.
For thousands of years, the swastika was used by cultures around the world. Originally, it was used to represent the sun, or strength, or power, or good luck. However, the German Nazi’s appropriated the symbol during their reign of terror. By the end of the Second World War, very few people outside of die-hard Nazis looked favorably upon the swastika. Today, it is a symbol that represents degradation, humiliation and overt racism. The original meaning is lost to the dust of history, and even the people who as recently as a century ago were using it as a good luck talisman have abandoned it.
2,000 years ago, the cross represented the very worst punishment the Roman Empire could mete out. Wherever crosses appeared, the most painful death imaginable was certain to follow. As a symbol, it represented the power of Rome and the emperor. Today, it is the principle symbol of the world’s 3 billion Christians. Rather than a symbol of oppression, it has become a symbol of freedom. Although I never met Emperor Nero, I doubt he would understand how, in less than a century, the Roman Imperial Eagle came to be replaced by the cross.
Today, we’re faced with another symbol that has undergone a radical transformation of it’s meaning: the Confederate Battle Flag. While it once stood for the right of individual states to protest the federal government and Southern Pride, it’s appropriation by various white supremacist groups today leaves it an undeniable symbol of racism and bigotry. Removing it’s use from public and/or official displays should be plain common sense.
There will still be occasions when it’s use is appropriate. Just as swastikas are flown during WWII reenactments, it’s a little hard to imagine a Civil War reenactment without the Stars and Bars. But by the same token, no matter how much I like Lynyrd Skynyrd, I just can’t imagine them continuing to use that flag as a stage prop – even though it’s been a staple of their shows for over 40 years. Yes, Skynyrd is proud to be Southern. but they’ve never embraced racism as a theme.
That’s what happens when symbols change meaning. You can continue to use them, hoping the world will understand you don’t agree with the new meaning. Or you can accept reality and move on. It’s time for us to move on and consign the Confederate Battle Flag to history.