Teachable Instant: A Confederate Controversy

In this brief activity, students learn about recent controversies surrounding the Confederate flag, discuss opposing views of the flag, and consider the range of opinion among different groups about the flag.   

Note:  Before you discuss the Confederate flag in your classroom, you may want to review our guidelines for teaching on controversial issues.


Write the words "Confederate flag" on the board and circle it.  Ask students what words they associate with that term.  Write students’ responses on the board, and connect their words to "Confederate flag" with a line. 

Then ask:  

  • What do you notice about the web?
  • Can we make any generalizations about our associations?

About the Confederate Flag

Ask five volunteers to each read one of the following five paragraphs.

1.  Over the 2015 Memorial Day weekend, people in 13 mostly southern states conducted "funerals" for the Confederate flag as part of a project by conceptual artist John Sims. Sims said he hoped the actions would prompt people to "reflect upon and critique the complex nature of the Confederate flag as a lasting symbol of terror."   The project also included 13 artists reading eulogies they had written.  (See the video here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-H5lzW73-g)


2.  The actions angered groups that defend the Confederate flag.  Ben Jones, a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said that the project was "not only terribly offensive but astonishingly idiotic.  This sort of thing merely inflames old divisions... For every flag he burns and buries, we will put up ten more."


3.  The Confederate flag has been in the news for another reason lately:  In March 2015, the Supreme Court heard arguments over the state of Texas’s decision not to allow the Sons of Confederate Veterans to sponsor a state license plate that includes the Confederate battle flag.  The court has not yet ruled in the case.


4.  Many people are deeply offended by the Confederate flag, which they see as a horrific reminder of slavery, discrimination and racial violence.  To them, it celebrates the Confederacy, under which hundreds of thousands of Black people were enslaved and robbed of their wages; many were tortured or killed.  They note that the flag is commonly used by hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, and they compare it to the Nazi flag, which is banned in Germany.   Some also argue that the flag is a symbol of treason. 

5.  Many defenders of  the Confederate flag maintain that it is not intended to represent slavery or racism, but is instead a "symbol of southern pride." Others say the flag is a general statement of rebellion against tyranny, and that the Confederacy was not primarily about slavery, but about state’s rights.  However, historical records contradict this claim. For instance, Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens declared that the Confederacy’s "cornerstone" was the principle "that slavery, subordination to the superior race" was the "natural and moral condition" of Black Americans. Defenders of the Confederate flag argue that restricting people from displaying the flag violates their First Amendment right to free speech.

Ask students: 

  • What do you think of these opposing views about the Confederate flag?


Where do Americans stand?

In March 2015, the group YouGov polled 1000 adults from around the country about this issue. The survey asked:  Do you see the Confederate flag more as a symbol of Southern pride or more as a symbol of racism?  (See the survey here.)


Ask students to guess what the survey found.  Specifically:


a. What percentage of Black people surveyed said that the Confederate flag was a symbol of Southern pride? (8%)

b.  What percentage of Black people said it was a symbol of racism? (55%)


c. What percentage of white people said that the Confederate flag was a symbol of Southern pride? (47%)

d.  What percentage of white people said it was a symbol of racism? (30%)


e.  What percentage of young people (aged 18-29) said it was a symbol of Southern pride? (19%)

f.   What percentage of young people said it was a symbol of racism? (43%)


g. What percentage of seniors (65 and over) said it was a symbol of Southern pride?  (58%)

h. What percentage of seniors said it was a symbol of racism?  (26%)


Overall, the survey found that:

  • 41% of those surveyed thought the flag was a symbol of Confederate pride
  • 31% thought it was a symbol of racism
  • 15% said it was neither
  • 12% were not sure


Ask students:  If these statistics reflect national opinion, what do they tell you about the range of views about the Confederate flag?

People’s opinions can change based on new information or changing social values.  For instance, public opinion about marriage equality for lesbians and gays has shifted dramatically in the space of just a few years.  What do you think people who find the Confederate flag offensive could do to shift public opinion on this issue?

Which of the following do you think would be most effective:

  • organizing actions like the Memorial Day "funerals"
  • calling  on the U.S. or states to ban the flag, just as Nazi symbols were banned in Germany  
  • educating people about the flag’s history and about why it is offensive 

What questions do we have about the Confederate flag or people’s opinions about it?  

How can we answer them?


Optional assignments

  • Ask students to research the Confederate flag controversy, including arguments for and against display of the flag. Then conduct another classroom discussion on the issue.
  • Ask students to research where Confederate symbols are currently used (eg, in state or local flags, by organizations, on signs, etc), then discuss what impact these uses of the flag might have.