Richard Alan Hannon / The State / AP

Charleston killings thrust Confederate flag into national spotlight

In birthplace of the Civil War, divide persists over legacy of the flags and what they symbolize

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Today, Alexis Brown’s flagpole in her Moncks Corner, South Carolina, home has a San Diego Padres flag on it. It wouldn’t be unusual, however, to see a Confederate flag on the pole, she said. “It would be flown with the U.S. flag.”

In this state, the birthplace of the Civil War, a great divide persists when it comes to the legacy of the Confederate flags and what they symbolize.

The racially motivated killing of nine black church members in Charleston Wednesday has thrust the Confederate battle flag and its presence on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia under a national spotlight, renewing calls by civil rights organizations to remove it.

Alleged gunman Dylann Roof’s posed with a car bearing a Confederate front plate, and he wore a jacket with apartheid jacket patches, which “should make clear to the state of South Carolina that the Confederate flag is not simply a symbol of tradition or culture, but it’s a symbol of hate,” said Lecia Brooks, the outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the U.S.

“[White supremacists groups] are not flying the flag to honor the Confederate dead. They continue to use the flag as a symbol of a time when white supremacy reigned,” Brooks said.

But some South Carolina residents, like Brown, don’t see the flag as a racist symbol.

“Is the flag racist? No. It’s a battle flag. That’s all it represents,” said Brown, who is white. “That flag has 13 stars to represent the original colonies, and the big ‘X’ means that the Southern states are seceding from those original 13 colonies. That’s it. That’s what started the war, not slavery. Slavery is what pushed the agenda. For people to use that as a racist symbol or to think it’s a racist symbol, they’re out of their mind,” she said.

The “racist agenda” is being pushed by the media, she said. “I think they should have flown it at half-mast [on the Statehouse grounds after the shooting], just like the U.S. flag. But it coming down because of something like this? I think they’re just trying to use this as a political thing,” Brown said.

“We don’t need people coming in here pushing another agenda on top of the tragedy that has already happened,” Brown said.

The Confederate flag has become “a scapegoat for people who have a lot of built-up anger and hatred about what happened so many years ago,” said Goose Creek resident Jeff Junkins.

“One of the biggest things Charleston is known for is the first shot of the Civil War,” Junkins said. “You can’t get rid of that. Most of our income coming in is from tourists coming in to see plantations, the forts and all that stuff. It’s all based off of that war. I think it’s ridiculous to try to hide that one part of that war.”

“If you get rid of a flag, it’s not going to get rid of racism. It’s not going to get rid of what happened years ago,” he said, adding that he rarely sees one flying in the community. “In all honesty, on a day-to-day basis, I probably don’t see one at all.”

Charleston tourist Sean Bernave, who is African-American, said he and his wife traveled to the city from Atlanta to learn more about its Civil War history. “As difficult as it is to embrace some of our historical choices that we as a nation have made, those were made by our forefathers. There’s a responsibility in understanding that is historic,” he said.

The Confederate flag is a consequence of living in a free country, he said. “I find that it continues to mark a period of history that some choose to continue to memorialize and others choose to distance themselves because of what it represents and how it came into being,” Bernave said. “If it is offensive to some, should be offensive to all.”

“It will always represent hate,” and a time when labor-intensive cotton was the economy of the South, said Elder James Johnson, president of the National Action Network, a civil rights group. “People don’t want to admit it, but the Civil War was fought for slavery.”

He added, “It puts a bad taste in my mouth every time I see one.”

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