For over a century, the meaning of the Confederate battle flag has been the subject of debate in the South.
As tragedy struck Charleston, S.C., with the killing of nine black churchgoers June 17, a conversation was sparked on what place the flag has in American lives — public and private — today.
Several states have since taken action. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the flag from the state capitol’s grounds.
Last week, Gov. Pat McCrory reached out to the North Carolina legislature to change the state law that allows North Carolina to issue license plates containing images of the Confederate flag.
“The time is right to change this policy due to the recent Supreme Court ruling and the tragedy in Charleston,” spokesman Josh Ellis said in an emailed statement.
UNC history professor Harry Watson, who studies the antebellum South, said the flag’s history is complex and has taken many different physical designs and symbolic roles.
After the Civil War, Watson said the flag first directly represented the continuation of a legacy. Organizations were set up to remember the Confederacy as the veteran generation started to die off in the 1890s, he said.
“It was always part of the cultural movement that we call 'the lost cause movement' or 'the cult of the lost cause,'” he said. “That is the generation of the Confederacy — the idea that it was a good and worthy, noble project and it ought to always be remembered in a positive light,” he said.
However, the flag was eventually linked to other movements, Watson said. During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan used the flag in some rituals. Mainly, he said, the organization used the American flag instead.
Later, in the 1940s, Watson said the flag broke from its traditional use again as it became an emblem for Southern universities' football teams.
In 1948, he said South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond created the Dixiecrat movement that started campaigning against the desegregation of Democrat Harry Truman’s agenda.
“The Dixiecrat party didn’t go anywhere after 1948, but that of course introduced the flag into politics again, and it became an emblem of resistance to the civil rights movement,” he said.
Jerma Jackson, another UNC history professor who focuses on African-American history in the U.S., said this resurrection was the beginning of the flag's racist roots for black Americans.
“When Jim Crowe was about to get toppled in the '50s and increasingly in the '60s, this flag rears its head again,” Jackson said. “For African-Americans, it symbolizes a kind of white supremacy.”
Jackson said the actions being taken by states to separate institutions with the Confederate flag change some things — but not everything. She said the struggle of white supremacy and racism in the country is a constant process.
“It’s just this dance," she said. “Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps back, one step forward. That dance is uneven and continuing.”
Watson said some may genuinely associate the flag with pride for Southern heritage.
"A lot of white Americans my age and older grew up sincerely believing that the South had a glorious cause," he said. "They’re not quite sure what it was, but it deserves to be remembered. They may sincerely believe that the Confederate flag stands for all of that and has no racial meaning whatsoever."
Watson said, however, that as a professional historian, he does not think the regional pride associated with the flag is a construction that can be separated from racism.
“The notion that the Confederate flag doesn’t carry racial baggage with it is tied to a deliberately distorted memory of the Civil War and what the Confederacy was all about,” Watson said.
“I don’t believe in distorted history.”
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