clock menu more-arrow no yes

Watch: A black congressman’s moving rebuttal of the Confederate flag

House Republicans were forced to pull a vote on a funding bill for the Interior Department due to infighting over the Confederate battle flag, the Hill's Cristina Marcos reported.

The controversy arose after Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) proposed an amendment that would have negated measures in the bill that ban the flag from displays in certain federal cemeteries and prohibited sales of the flag in National Park Service stores. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told reporters he pulled the spending bill to avoid turning the Confederate flag issue into a "political football."

Several Democrats spoke out against Calvert's amendment. In a passionate speech on the House floor, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who is black, denounced the Confederate flag as "nothing more than a symbol of racial hatred and oppression."

"Had this Confederate battle flag prevailed in war 150 years ago, I would not be standing here today as a member of the United States Congress," he said. "I would be here as a slave."

Some Republicans also took issue with Calvert's amendment. "We've put our heads like a pumpkin on a stick and given [Democrats] a baseball bat," Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) told Vox's Jon Allen and other reporters.

The House debate comes a day after the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from its state Capitol. After a mass shooting left nine dead at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, last month, state lawmakers were criticized for allowing the Confederate flag — a symbol of white supremacy — to fly on Capitol grounds, prompting the bill to take the flag down.

The Confederate flag has always been a symbol of white supremacy and racism

Throughout history, the Confederate flag has been repeatedly used as a symbol to oppress black people. It was flown by Southern armies during the Civil War as they fought to keep slavery. And it was later brought back in the 1960s, as Vox's Libby Nelson explained, to intimidate civil rights advocates and defend segregation.

Supporters of the Confederate flag claim it's flown to honor the dead who fought in the Civil War and pay tribute to the South's heritage. The problem is this heritage is mired in racism — as demonstrated by states' justifications for seceding at the start of the Civil War.

South Carolina, the first state to secede, said in its official statement that it saw any attempts to abolish slavery and grant rights to black Americans as "hostile to the South" and "destructive of its beliefs and safety":

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

Mississippi, meanwhile, was even more explicit in its statement, saying that its "position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery":

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

These statements show the Confederate flag was flown in battle in support of slavery. And it was later touted in opposition to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

But some Republicans reject this history, arguing that the flag is really about honoring Confederate soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War. Democrats and other Republicans in the House disagree — and the dispute has caused the House to stall a bill that would fund the Interior Department.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.