The debate over the Confederate flag

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Known as the rebel flag, the Southern Cross and the battle flag, a star-studded blue cross over a red field was originally the flag used by the Confederate army of the South in the U.S. Civil War.

More than 150 years after the South surrendered, the flag remains a source of controversy in America.

Why is it controversial?

“If all Confederate flags had been furled once and for all in 1865, they would still be contentious symbols,” says historian John Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy. But “the history of the flag since 1865 is marked by the accumulation of additional meanings based on additional uses.”

After the war, Coski says, descendants of Confederate veterans used the battle flag in memorials and as “a venerated symbol of their ancestors.”

But over time, the battle flag also came to represent Southern culture more generally as the former Confederate states introduced strict racial segregation and developed a distinct cultural and political identity.

Man in group of people holding flag confronting another man (© AP Images)
Protesters oppose school integration in 1957. (© AP Images)

In the 1940s and 1950s, the battle flag became popular as a banner of segregationists who opposed the growing African-American civil rights movement.

Once segregation was dismantled, the flag remained as a symbol of those who argued for a broad interpretation of states’ rights, the areas that the U.S. Constitution reserves as the responsibility of the state governments rather than the federal government in Washington.

But the flag has also been adopted by racists and white nationalists.

Americans who oppose public display of the Confederate flag argue it doesn’t matter if well-meaning flag supporters deem it a symbol of Southern heritage or states’ rights. Its history, they contend, honors slavery, segregation and inequality.

Where does it stand now?

People waving flags in front of domed statehouse (© AP Images)
Groups at the state Capitol in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2016 show support for keeping the Confederate battle emblem in the state flag. (© AP Images)

The debate heightened in 2015 after a gunman who posted photographs of himself posing with the Confederate flag shot and killed nine people in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. A national movement soon emerged to de-emphasize Confederate imagery, including the flag, in public life. Political leaders acknowledged that even if the flag wasn’t intended to be offensive, many citizens viewed it that way. The broader heritage it represents, they suggested, could be promoted and honored through other means.

In South Carolina, for example, Governor Nikki Haley ordered the battle flag removed from outside the state Capitol building. “My hope is that by removing a symbol that divides us, we can move forward as a state in harmony,” Haley said at the time. (President Trump selected Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations).

Meanwhile, in Virginia, the Alexandria City Council voted to rename a local highway that was named for Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Still, several Southern U.S. states continue to incorporate Confederate imagery in their state emblems, and many Americans exercise their right to free speech by displaying the battle flag in support of whatever it personally means to them.