What does the black American flag mean? Your questions answered

Bruno Cooke January 20, 2021
What does the black American flag mean? Your questions answered

Black flags have a curious history, from Confederates in the American Civil War to the writings of JRR Tolkien. What does the black American flag mean?

Black American flag meaning

One of the first times a black American flag entered the American consciousness was during the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865. 

During that period, particular Confederate Army units flew the black flag to symbolise the opposite of the white flag of surrender. It means they would neither give, nor accept, quarter.

In other words, “no quarter will be given” means enemy combatants would rather be killed than taken prisoner. 

The phrase “give no quarter” has origins as far back as the 17th century. From a 1611 French-English dictionary comes this definition

Quartier – quarter, or faire war, wherein souldiers are taken prisoners and ransomed at a certaine rate.

In this context, “quarter” specifically means “exemption from being immediately put to death”. So, anyone hearing they would be given no quarter – no mercy – understood it effectively meant a death sentence.

However, this isn’t the only time the American flag appeared in an all-black or partially black colour scheme. 

What does the Thin Blue Line flag mean?

The ‘Thin Blue Line’ American flag is black and white except for one stripe, which is blue instead of white. The blue line represents law enforcement. 

Citizens who fly this flag show their support for those working for the police and law enforcement agencies. In other words, according to the Thin Blue Line USA blog: “It is the ‘Line’ in ‘Line of Duty.’”

The equivalent also exists in the UK.

Black-and-camouflage, infrared American flags for military use

The versions of the American flag that appear on military uniforms are often greyscale or monochrome. Infrared patches, for example, have a camouflaged background with black stars and stripes overlaid.

These black or mostly black American flags are more effective in situations where the standard red, white and blue flags would be too visible. Increased visibility can potentially compromise the safety of military units in hostile environments. Therfore, flags in muted colours are a security measure.

Why the black American flag has been in the news

There are several reasons why the Thin Blue Line, mostly black, American flag has returned to the public’s attention in recent months.

In the context of covid-19 and lock-down restrictions, the supporters and detractors of US law enforcement may find new reasons to show, or criticise, the Thin Blue Flag movement.

Comparably, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement which found widespread global support, the debates around the role of law enforcement have taken place in both academic and media conversations.

Today, 20 January 2021, on the inauguration of President Joe Biden, interest in the meaning behind a black US flag has been renewed. With the transition of power, some people took to Twitter to question what else will change.

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Bruno Cooke has been a freelance journalist since 2019, primarily with GRV Media. He was an early contributor to The Focus, and has written for HITC, Groundviews and the Sheffield University newspaper – he earned his MA in Global Journalism there in 2021. He’s the Spoken Word Poetry Editor for The Friday Poem, and self-published his debut novel Reveries in 2019, which his mum called both a “fine read” and “excellent Christmas present”. Bruno has lived in China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines and likes, among other things: bicycle touring, black and white Japanese films, pub quizzes, fermentation and baklava. In 2023, Bruno will set off with his partner on a round-the-world cycle.