BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) – Long a symbol of pride for some and hatred for others, the Southern Battle Flag loses its place of official prominence 155 years after rebellious Southern states lost a war to perpetuate slavery.
Mississippi Republican Legislature voted Sunday to remove the US Civil War emblem from the state flag, a move both years in the making that was notable for its speed amid a national debate on racial inequality following the assassination of George Floyd Police in Minnesota. Mississippi’s was the last state flag to feature the design.
Born in the South and still popular in the region, NASCAR banned the rebel flag from racing earlier this month, and some southern sites have removed memorials and statues dedicated to the Confederate cause. A similar round of Southern flag and memorial removals was prompted by the murder of nine black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, five years ago. A white supremacist was convicted of the shooting.
Make no mistake: the Southern flag is nowhere near to disappear from the south. Just drive on highways where members of Sons of Confederate Veterans have set up giant war flags or stop by Dixie General Store, where Bob Castello makes a living selling hundreds of rebel-themed shirts, hats, auto accessories in a county in eastern Alabama named after to a Confederate officer, General Patrick Cleburne.
“Business is very good at the moment,” Castello said Monday.
But even Castello is surprised by how demonstrations of police brutality became a wave that seems to flood generations of worship for the Southern battle flag by some. He wonders what could happen next.
“This can go on,” he said. “There’s just no limit to where they can go.”
The Confederation was founded in Montgomery in 1861 with a constitution that outlawed laws “that deny or violate the property rights of negro slaves”. The South lost, slavery ended, and Southern sympathizers have almost always claimed that the war was not just about slavery, but instead advocated the version of the “lost cause” that focused on the rights of the state, the Southern nobility and honor.
For some, the Southern Battle Flag – with its red background, blue X and white stars – is a symbol of Southern heritage and pride. The band Alabama, one of the best-selling country music groups ever, recorded the banner on five album covers in the 1980s and 90s, while it was at the peak of its popularity.
Patty Howard, who visited a massive carving of Confederate Civil War generals at Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park on Monday with her husband, Toby, said they were not offended by the flag, but they are not flying it home either in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
“I don’t see it in connection with slavery,” said Howard, 71. “To us, it just means we’re from the south.”
But the flag has a dark side. It has been moved for decades by the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists who oppose equal rights. The use of the banner by such groups, combined with an ever-growing sense that it is time to retire the symbol of a defeated nation once and for all, has changed.
“The argument about the 1894 flag has become as divided as the flag itself and it is time to put an end to it,” Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said of the current state flag, which was passed by legislators in a time when white supremacists actively politically repressed power that African Americans had acquired after the civil war.
Georgia – which added the battle emblem to its state flag in 1956 in response to U.S. Supreme Court decisions to desegregate public schools – adopted a non-rebel flag in 2003.
Alabama flew the battle flag on top of its Capitol until 1993, when it was removed following protests from black lawmakers. Additional Southern flags were removed from around a massive Southern memorial just outside the building in 2015, when South Carolina also removed its Capitol battle flag after the shooting.
It takes longer in Mississippi. Not long after the Charleston shooting, house speaker Philip Gunn became the state’s first prominent republican to say that the southern symbol on the flag was morally offensive and needs to be changed. People posted signs with the slogan, “Save the flag. Change the speaker, ”but Gunn was easily reelected twice.
Last month, Gunn and Mississippi’s freshman lieutenant governor, Republican Delbert Hosemann, convinced a diverse, two-tiered coalition of lawmakers that changing the flag was inevitable and should be part of it.
Hosemann is the great-grandson of a Southern soldier, Lt. Rhett Miles, who was captured in Vicksburg and pardoned after the war ended in 1865.
“After four years of war, he admitted his transgressions and asked for full citizenship,” Hosemann said during the debate. “If he were here today, he would be proud of us.”
Associated Press reporters Kate Brumback in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.
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