Reexamining Confederate symbols displayed on flags and monuments in public spaces: Two fallacies in the heritage versus hate debate

James Michael Martinez, Kennesaw State University
Mary Christine Cagle, Kennesaw State University


Objective: This article examines ongoing arguments over the meanings of Confederate symbols—especially symbols displayed on flags and monuments—to assess two fallacies that frequently influence the debate. Method: The article explores the historical record concerning public displays of Confederate symbols. Results: The traditional debate is based on two fallacies. First, it presupposes that the meaning of a symbol can be limited to a single referent or set of referents and fixed in time. Second, it assumes that the meaning of Confederate symbols can be divorced from hateful messages of white supremacy and bigotry. Conclusion: A symbol cannot be limited to its original meaning because the context is constantly evolving. Even if it could be limited, the original meaning of Confederate symbols was always hateful. The debate sometimes has been cast as “heritage versus hate.” Because displays of Confederate symbols in public spaces have always been in a context of “hate”—to defend a slaveholding republic, to promote white supremacy, to defy court-ordered integration of public schools, or to promote the agenda of racist advocacy groups—the meaning of Confederate flags and monuments was never about heritage alone. Hate was always part of the message.