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What is the Confederate flag and why is it still flying?

The flag has been much debated in the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting.

Charleston Shooting The steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church stands as a pedestrian passes. Source: Apexchange

IN THE HOURS after a gunman, seemingly hoping to incite a war between blacks and whites, killed nine people in an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina last week, flags flew at half-mast.

All except one.

Above the state capitol building, the flag of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, better known as the Confederate flag flew proudly.

Charleston Shooting Confederate Flag Source: AP/Press Association Images

The flag has been subject of fierce debate over the last few days. Here’s why:

What is the flag?

Charleston Shooting Confederate Flag Source: AP/Press Association Images

To understand why people want the flag taken down, it is important to remember what it symbolises.

The flag was used throughout the American Civil War in the 1860s by the slave-owning South.

Why is it still used?

Charleston Shooting Confederate Flag Source: AP/Press Association Images

The flag’s use is determined at state level and opinions across the US differ wildly. It is currently flown in seven states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

In California, its use is banned outright in all state buildings. In Mississippi, it forms part of the state flag.

It is widely used across southern American states as a symbol of the civil war, but some say that gesture alone stops America from facing up to its racial issues.

Charleston Shooting Confederate Flag Source: AP/Press Association Images

Supporters of the flag consider it a valued token of enduring Southern pride and heritage, while critics see it as a symbol of racism and white supremacy.

In South Carolina, the flag has only been flown on state buildings since 1962, when it was erected in response to the Civil Rights movement.

Why is it getting so much attention?


Pictures of suspect Dylann Roof show him holding the flag and the gun which it is believed was used to kill nine people. Since then, its role as a symbol of hate at the same time as an official symbol has been questioned.

It is important to note that Charleston has a deep-rooted place in American racial relations. It was the American capital of the transatlantic slave trade, with 40% of enslaved Africans passing through it and was where the first shots of the civil war were fired.

In that context, its place flying over buildings in a city that is 25% black is important.

Brazil Confederates Source: AP/Press Association Images

Some, like the comedian John Oliver, have suggested that the attention is there because there is far more chance of achieving a victory against the flying of a flag than against the US gun lobby and gun crime.

However, to those fighting against it, it is more than that. Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic says that the flag needs to be put in a museum to allow American to move forward.

Moral cowardice requires choice and action. It demands that its adherents repeatedly look away, that they favour the fanciful over the plain, myth over history, the dream over the real. Here is another choice. Take down the flag. Take it down now.

Even Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, a ministry with deep-seated links to slavery, called on leaders to remove the flag.

The Confederate Battle Flag may mean many things, but with those things it represents a defiance against abolition and against civil rights. The symbol was used to enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorise preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night.

How do people react to it?

Charleston Shooting Confederate Flag Source: AP/Press Association Images

The Anti-Defamation League, best known for tackling anti-Semitism, says the Confederate flag is popular among white supremacists in both the United States and abroad. However, they say that context is important.

However, context is irrelevant to many blacks, who argue that using a symbol of white supremacy on state buildings is wrong, regardless of intention.

A nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center in 2011 indicated that 9% of Americans felt positive upon seeing the Confederate flag, against 30% who said they reacted negatively and 58% who felt neither way.

But among blacks, 41% told Pew said they reacted negatively to the sight of the flag — such is its power to invoke the memory of antebellum slavery and the decades of harsh racial segregation that followed the Civil War.

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Brazil Confederates Source: AP/Press Association Images

In the days following the massacre at the Emmanuel Church, the flag has become a flashpoint, a debating topic in a country that has never fully addressed the fact that it is still, some 50 years after the Civil Rights era, a racially divided nation.

America has deep, deep scars that come from 350 years of slavery, a bitter civil war and a long, long march for equality.

The election of Barack Obama as US President in 2008 wasn’t the end of racial division, it merely served to magnify the cracks which run through many sectors of American society.

But why is the flag flying in the first place? It is the flag of a defeated army. Irish state buildings don’t fly the sunburst flag of Fianna Éireann, after all.

What is being done?

Charleston Shooting Confederate Flag Source: AP/Press Association Images

At the minute, not much. While there are protests, the flag outside the capitol in Charleston is permanently affixed to the flagpole, so physically lowering it to half-mast was impossible.

In any case, consent to lower the flags would require a 75% supermajority of the state’s two houses, in which the Republican party has 106 of 170 seats.

Removing the flag from state buildings would then require a state-wide referendum. In 2001, Mississippi defeated such an idea, with 64% voting to retain their version of the Confederate flag.

In a 2014 poll for the State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, three out of four white South Carolina residents said the Confederate flag should keep flying outside the state house – compared to 61 percent of blacks who wanted to see it go.

President Barack Obama and the man he beat in the 2012 election Mitt Romney, agreed on the issue, both saying it should be put in a museum.

However, a host of potential Republican presidential nominees have declined to comment, or have said it’s an issue for the state to resolve itself.

Democratic presidential contender Hillary Rodham Clinton has yet to address the issue this week, but in 2007 called for the flag’s removal, in part because the nation should unite under one banner while at war.

Read: Barack Obama used the n-word while discussing racism

Read: White supremacist manifesto and pictures of Charleston suspect found online

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