A controversial flag
Brother against brother
In Dixie's land
Not the flag you'd think of...
History, written by losers
The Lost Cause of the Confederacy
The Birth of a Nation
Hollywood
Men in white sheets
'Separated but equal'
The Red Earth of Tara
The South rose again
Getting rid of Jim Crow
Dixiecrats
States' rights
1964 Civil Rights Act
George Wallace
The 1968 Presidential Election
'Heritage, not hate'
Good ole' boys?
Rebel yell
Heritage of hate
'segregation and white supremacy'
New flag, same values
Lowering the flag
2015 South Carolina statehouse removal
Symbols of hate
New colors fly over Mississippi
The Confederacy takes over the Capitol
Banner of insurrectionists
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A controversial flag

The Battle Flag of the Confederate States of America is a symbol that has divided Americans for over 150 years. The banner, also known as “The Southern Cross”, “The Rebel Flag” or “The Dixie Flag”, has acquired different meanings over the years. But what exactly is its history? Why is this piece of cloth so controversial?

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Brother against brother

The American Civil War broke out in 1861. Increased expansion towards the west brought up the question if new US states should allow or ban slavery. Southern states, which were mostly agricultural, saw slavery as an integral part of their economy and social order.

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In Dixie's land

The Confederacy, as the insurrectionist southern government is also known, soon began adopting symbols to set itself apart from the Union in the north: Gray uniforms, a new seal, and, of course, a new flag…

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Not the flag you'd think of...

However, the banner now associated with the rebel side of the Civil War was not the original flag of the Confederate States of America. Instead, it was a battle flag adopted by the Confederate Army to avoid confusion with the Union’s Stars and Stripes. Eventually, it formed part of a canton of the CSA's official flag.

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History, written by losers

What we now know as “The Confederate Flag” was part of the myth that grew in the following decades after the South’s defeat in 1865.

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The Lost Cause of the Confederacy

Veterans and sympathizers pushed forward the myth of the “Lost Cause”: they conjured the image of a genteel, pastoral antebellum South where slaves were treated well.

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The Birth of a Nation

This myth reached its zenith in 1915 with 'The Birth of a Nation' by D. W. Griffith, one of Hollywood’s earliest blockbusters.

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Hollywood "heroes"

Griffith’s Civil War epic, among other things, portrays the Ku Klux Klan as defending white people against atrocities committed by African-Americans, covering under the protection of the federal government.

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Men in white sheets

'The Birth of a Nation' was the first film ever projected in The White House. It's credited to have single-handedly revitalized the Ku Klux Klan and popularized much of its iconography.

Pictured: A Klan parade in Washington, D.C. in the 1920s.

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'Separated but equal'

Organizations such as the KKK helped to uphold unfair policies, such as the Jim Crow laws. These laws allegedly segregated white people and people of color as “separated but equal”, but in practice enforced white supremacy as the norm in everyday society.

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The Red Earth of Tara

A long trend of Hollywood movies romanticizing the Old South, or at least downplaying its negative aspects, continued for several decades with films such as 'Gone With The Wind' (seen here) or Disney’s 'Song of the South'.

Image source: MGM

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The South rose again

However, The Confederate Battle Flag didn’t take prominence again until the 1950s. When the US Supreme Court declared in 1954 that segregation in public schools was illegal, this was met with opposition by many people in the South.

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Getting rid of Jim Crow

Southerners feared that the Supreme Court ruling would bring an end to Jim Crow laws, and the flag served as a symbol of both: A southern rejection of the federal government and a message to uphold white supremacy.

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Dixiecrats

Dixiecrats, members of the Democratic Party that had ruled virtually unopposed the US south for almost a century, took the flag as their symbol to oppose what they saw as a “northern aggression”.

Pictured: A Confederate battle flag during the 1956 Democratic National Convention.

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States' rights

Georgia even adopted the symbol as part of its state flag in 1955 (seen here in a 1996 photo) while South Carolina started hoisting the banner on its state capitol in 1961.

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1964 Civil Rights Act

Despite their opposition, the 1964 Civil Rights Act put an end to Jim Crow Laws. Curiously enough, it was Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, who made this possible. This brought an end to the reign of the Dixiecrats.

Pictured: Lyndon Johnson with Martin Luther King.

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George Wallace

Southern politics veered to the Republican Party in the following decades. Others, like four-time Alabama governor George Wallace (pictured here), remained on the fringe of the Democratic Party.

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The 1968 Presidential Election

Wallace, in fact, ran as a third-party candidate in the 1968 Presidential Election and managed to carry five southern states. He remains the last non-Republican, non-Democratic candidate to win any state in a US presidential election.

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'Heritage, not hate'

During the rest of the 20th century, the Confederate Battle Flag continued to be used as a seemingly harmless symbol of US southern culture, despite criticism. This idea was distilled in the motto: “Heritage, not hate”.

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Good ole' boys?

One can see this in TV shows like 'The Dukes of Hazzard'. One of the show’s stars was General Lee, the Duke boys’ car, which proudly sported the flag and played 'Dixie' on its car horn.

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Rebel yell

Music bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd (pictured here in the 1980s) and Pantera have also been associated with the Confederate Battle Flag, displaying it in concerts and other events.

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Heritage of hate

However, this begs the question about what kind of heritage the flag is celebrating.

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'segregation and white supremacy'

In the 1990s and the 2000s, Georgia was at the center of the debate regarding the Confederate Battle Flag. A state senate investigation ruled that the flag was simply adopted to “preserve segregation and white supremacy”.

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New flag, same values

The state flag was changed in 2005… for one based on the original flag of the Confederacy.

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Lowering the flag

The nationwide debate over the flag raged in the 2000s and in the 2010s. Far-right movements embraced and defended the symbol, waving it in rallies and public events.

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2015 South Carolina statehouse removal

As a backlash, many institutions have taken action against its display. South Carolina removed the flag from the statehouse in 2015 in the wake of the Dylann Roof shooting in Charleston. This attracted its fair share of protestors from both sides.

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Symbols of hate

The state of New York approved in 2020 a law penalizing symbols of hate. Among those listed is the Battle Flag of the Confederacy.

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New colors fly over Mississippi

In 2021, Mississippi adopted a new state flag to replace the old one, which included the confederate symbol.

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The Confederacy takes over the Capitol

The Confederate Battle Flag was seen prominently among Trump supporters during the January 6th Capitol Attack. It was the first time the banner has been displayed inside the US Congress.

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Banner of insurrectionists

Many people jokingly commented that having the attackers sport the symbol of a losing insurrection against the US government was appropriate. However, it makes many people wonder if the values that the Confederate Battle Flag represents continue, even if we no longer see it flying.

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