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Americas france 24

Charleston shooting reignites debate over Confederate flag

© AFP / Mladen Antonov I The South Carolina and American flags flying at half-staff behind the Confederate flag erected in front of the State Congress building in Columbia, South Carolina on June 19, 2015

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2015-06-20

It's an expression of southern pride for some, and a symbol of hate and slavery for others. The debate over the Confederate flag has raged for decades but has taken on new impetus after the shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston this week.

The flag, a blue saltier emblazoned with white stars on a red background, still flies outside government buildings in states across the south, including at the capitol in South Carolina, a state still in shock from Wednesday’s massacre, which authorities say is being investigated as both a hate crime and as an act of domestic terrorism.

The 150-year-old flag was originally used as a Civil War battle flag by the seven slave states that broke away from the Union in 1861. It was hoisted onto the state capitol dome in South Carolina's capital, Columbia, in 1962 at the peak of the civil rights movement, where it flew until 2000 when it was moved to a war memorial on the building’s grounds at the behest of activists.

Now, the chorus of voices calling for its complete removal has become louder than ever.

“We see that symbol lifted up as an emblem of hate, as a tool for hate, as an inspiration for hate, as an inspiration for violence,” said Cornell Brooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “That symbol has to come down, that symbol must be removed from our state capitol.”

At a vigil for the nine victims of the church shootings held at a college basketball arena Friday, Reverend Nelson Rivers of the Charity Missionary Baptist Church prompted strong applause from the several thousand attendees when he called for the flag’s removal.

"If you want to do a living testimony to these nine lives, you will take that flag down," said Rivers forcefully.

On Friday, the White House joined the debate, saying that President Barack Obama believes the rebel flag belonged in a museum.

Flag ‘part of who we are’

Many Southern whites, though, reject the notion that the flag is inherently racist. Rather it is a long-cherished symbol of their heritage and an expression of a distinctive Southern identity, they say.

“This is part of who we are,” said Lyndsey Graham, a Republican US senator and candidate for the presidency in 2016.

He says the flag is simply a symbol of one of the sides that fought bravely in the Civil War, and little more, even though some people may have used it in a racist way in the past.

Paris police's confederate flag draws scorn

That view was echoed by Robert Lyday, 64, a retired mechanic who lives in Lexington, South Carolina, and who was selling pins and cupcakes in the town’s bowling alley to raise money for a local college fund.

“People make too much of the Confederate flag. We need to keep it around to remember our history and learn from it,” he said. “The state flies it because it is part of its history and I agree with that.”

Don Doyle, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, said that the Confederate flag gained its modern meaning from the 1950s onwards when it was used in opposition to the Civil Rights movement that sought to end segregation and create equal right for blacks.

“It’s a symbol that is not just heritage and history ... but it has become a symbol of rebellion against what I consider to be just basic American values of equality, liberty and justice,” said Doyle, who has studied the history of the South for 35 years.

For Doyle it is no coincidence that the flag was raised over South Carolina’s state house at a time when the civil rights movement was cresting and the federal government was putting mounting pressure on states to end segregation.

Many South Carolinians were particularly galled when the Confederate flag was left flying high after Wednesday’s massacre, even as the state and national flag were lowered to half-staff. The omission was seen as a mark of insensitivity.

Dylann Roof, the suspect in the Charleston shooting, had a Confederate flag on the license plate of the car he was driving when he was arrested. Just this week, the US Supreme Court upheld a ban in Texas on license plates bearing the Confederate flag.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)

Date created : 2015-06-20

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