Is the Confederate battle flag merely an historical relic or a symbol of racism? Why do people in northern states, who have no racist history, display this flag?

The recent killings in Charleston, S.C., which led to the lowering of that flag from a prime spot on the state capitol grounds in Columbia, have renewed thinking about the South’s past and race relations. The flag’s removal to a museum has also raised questions about symbolism in our lives.

South Carolina was the first southern state to secede from the U.S., acting soon after Lincoln’s election and before he took office. It ignored his willingness to allow slavery in states where it already existed. It declared that secession was about slavery, not states’ rights.

But it only put the Confederate flag on its capital grounds in 1961 to mark 100 years since the Civil War began and kept it up to express its opposition to the civil rights movement.

The flag is part of the state’s history, but a disgraceful part of that history. While it should not be forgotten, it should not be honored, especially when it is recalls the suppression of an entire group of the state’s citizens.

The Charleston killer understood the true meaning of the battle flag and, in his view, carried on the battle.

A recently published study looks at racism in each state based on Google searches for the “N-word.” It found that South Carolina ranked eighth. That could be an environment comfortable with the flag.

The election of Barack Obama as president did not mean that racism had disappeared and that showing the flag was a mere nod to history. In fact, some believe that Obama’s election increased racist sentiment.

Clearly, the outlook for African Americans has improved. And changing attitudes toward racially identifiable groups is taking place slowly.

Texas, a former Confederate state, rejected the display of the Confederate flag on its license plates, despite the claim it was merely historic. The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld its right to ban the flag plate without the state being guilty of infringing on free speech.

While the Supreme Court blocked the system of federal government pre-approval of changes in the election laws of states with racist histories, it did not write those states a blank check. The federal government is in court trying to prevent changes to North Carolina laws made following the Court’s decision, saying they are an attempt to block voting by African Americans

In the study of racism in the states, Maine ranked 32nd, close to Vermont and New Hampshire. This was considered to be less racist than average. Maine has the smallest non-white population of any state.

So why do some Mainers and others across the North continue to display the Confederate battle flag? While some may have racist attitudes, it is not likely many lament the end of slavery.

Southern soldiers in the Civil War were called “rebels,” people who were willing to fight the authority of their country to tell them or their states what to do.

The notion of being independent, rebelling against authority, still has strong appeal for many. To some of them, especially in the North, it’s possible the flag says “rebel” more than “racist.” But the intent matters less than the effect, so the message sent to blacks and many whites relates to the flag’s original use far more than to the beliefs of the person displaying it.

The message finally understood in South Carolina is just that: effect matters more than intent. Even if the flag means history to some, others see it is as a racist symbol.

One of the most interesting aspects of the flag coming down in Columbia was the change in attitude among many Republican leaders. The GOP had picked up conservative, white voters in the South after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It dislodged the almost total Democratic dominance in the old Confederacy.

It would have been natural for the Republicans to accept the flag as they have in recent decades. But leaders came to support its removal. Not only did the Charleston killings make inescapable the flag’s real meaning, but the changing American population sent the GOP a clear message.

By 2044, minorities are expected to be the majority of the American population. The GOP dominance of southern states could erode as the change takes place. The lowering of the old flag may have had greater political symbolism than it seemed.

— Gordon L. Weil is an author, publisher, consultant, and former official of international organizations and the U.S. and Maine governments.

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