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The Long And Divisive History Of The Confederate Flag


A hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag is displayed widely in the American South, but it could soon come down from in front of South Carolina's state capital. In the wake of the killings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the state's Republican governor and its U.S. senators stood with a bipartisan group of other elected officials yesterday to call for the flag to be removed just over 50 years since it first was placed on top of the Capitol dome. That was in 1962 as a celebration of the centennial of the Civil War and as the civil rights movement was peaking. The symbolism of the flag has evolved over many years. To talk more about that, we reached historian John Coski. He's the author of "The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem." Welcome.

JOHN COSKI: Thank you for having me on.

MONTAGNE: What was the significance of the flag before the Dixiecrats, the southern party that was against integration, adopted it in 1948?

COSKI: From the end of the war until 1948, the flag was primarily used by Confederate heritage groups. To them it was a memorial of the Confederate's heroes and its debt.

MONTAGNE: So there is some truth in this argument by defenders of the flag that it's a symbol of their heritage not primarily a racial division. I - there's an expression that gets used - heritage not hate.

COSKI: Exactly. That's the bumper sticker shorthand. And, yes, there's of course this truth to it, and it has retained that meaning even as it's acquired new ones.

MONTAGNE: And among the meanings, it's acquired some new flags around it. Dylann Roof, in presenting himself as a white supremacist, he's posted pictures of himself with the Confederate flag, but also with the flags of former repressive white regimes in Africa - in former Rhodesia in South Africa. So in that context it does mean primarily white supremacy.

COSKI: Certainly in that young man's mind it seems to mean that, those associations. But just as in the civil rights era when people used the flag apparently as a symbol of segregation - and whether their motivation was states' rights and constitutional liberties or racism, the result was always the same. They were using it as a symbol of defiance to the federal government and in the face of African Americans marching for civil rights. So what were they to think when they saw the flag except that it was being used in the hands of people who at the very least wanted to deny them their rights?

MONTAGNE: Why do you think it persists?

COSKI: Well, when faced with accusations that they are racist because some other people perceive the flag as racist, the people who don't push back. It's not a racist flag to me, they will argue, because - and therefore it's not a racist flag.

MONTAGNE: Well, do you think now that there's a call from officials in South Carolina to take it down - also in Mississippi the speaker of the Statehouse is calling for the Confederate flag that's embedded in the Mississippi state flag to be removed. Walmart says it will no longer sell merchandise displaying the flag. Do you think this will change attitudes about the flag in places where it's still looked upon with pride?

COSKI: I don't - well, it will not change attitudes of those who look upon it with pride as a rule. I mean, there's - I think you have a strong core group of people who believe that it means pride and heritage and ancestry and is a memorial who will never waver from that because that's what it means to them, and I think there will be some degree of pushback from them - the people who were sort of the fence sitters, if you will, the people who have some Confederate ancestry may. It may change their attitudes. But really, the question of where it is on the landscape, where it's available for sale or where it's being placed and where it's allowed on the landscape - that is one of the questions for the last half-a-century or more that has been - has changed over time, and it continues to evolve as we collectively sort of deal with this question of what belongs on our symbolic landscape and how and who decides that.

MONTAGNE: John Coski is a historian with the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va. Thanks very much for joining us.

COSKI: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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