NEW YORK – The shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston has revived demands that South Carolina stop flying the Confederate flag on the grounds of the statehouse, an issue that still divides residents of a state haunted by its legacy of slavery.
The flag of the Confederacy, a blue saltier emblazoned with white stars on a red background, has fluttered near the state legislature since the early 1960s, when it was put up during the peak of the civil rights movement.
The 150-year-old flag was originally used as a Civil War battle flag by the seven slave states that broke away from the Union in 1861. But those calling for its removal say the banner is an inappropriate symbol because of its racist associations.
“We see that symbol lifted up as an emblem of hate, as a tool for hate, as an inspiration for hate, as an inspiration for violence,” said Cornell Brooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “That symbol has to come down — that symbol must be removed from our state capitol.”
Many Southern whites, though, reject the notion that the flag is inherently racist. Rather it is a long-cherished symbol of their heritage and an expression of a distinctive Southern identity, they say.
“This is part of who we are,” said Lyndsey Graham, a Republican U.S. senator and candidate for the presidency in 2016.
He says the flag is simply a symbol of one of the sides that fought bravely in the Civil War, even though some people may have used it in a racist way in the past.
That view was echoed by Robert Lyday, 64, a retired mechanic who lives in Lexington, South Carolina, and who was selling pins and cupcakes in the town’s bowling alley to raise money for a local college fund.
“People make too much of the Confederate flag. We need to keep it around to remember our history and learn from it,” he said. “The state flies it because it is part of its history, and I agree with that.”
On Friday, the White House joined the debate, saying President Barack Obama believes the rebel flag belonged in a museum.
Don Doyle, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, said the Confederate flag gained its modern meaning from the 1950s onward when it was used in opposition to the civil rights movement, which sought to end segregation and create equal rights for blacks.
“It’s a symbol that is not just heritage and history … but it has become a symbol of rebellion against what I consider to be just basic American values of equality, liberty and justice,” said Doyle, who has studied the history of the South for 35 years.
For Doyle it is no coincidence that the flag was raised over the South Carolina State House in 1962, when the civil rights movement was cresting and the federal government was putting mounting pressure on states to end segregation.
Many South Carolinians were particularly galled when the Confederate flag was left flying high after Wednesday’s massacre, even as the state and national flags were lowered to half-staff. Although the Confederate flag was near the capitol building, not on its dome, the omission was seen as a mark of insensitivity.
Dylann Roof, the suspect in the Charleston shooting, had a Confederate flag on the license plate of the car he was driving when he was arrested. Just this past week, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban in Texas on license plates bearing the Confederate flag.
Opposition to the Confederate flag is nothing new in Columbia. In 2000 the banner was removed from the state house but put on a memorial to a Confederate soldier on the state house’s grounds.