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Furling the Flag

After a massacre in South Carolina, the Confederate battle flag came under attack — and thousands of its supporters fought back

For 150 years after the conclusion of the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag continued to fly, displayed at Deep South statehouses, by Southern “heritage” organizations, among groups of rebellious “rednecks,” at sporting events, and even on a car in the TV show “Dukes of Hazzard.” But this summer, in the wake of the massacre of nine people by a flag-waving white supremacist, the symbol also used as an emblem of the Ku Klux Klan came under unprecedented attack.

In a region where history and racism have often been whitewashed, Dylann Roof’s racist murders forced a debate that many had worked to suppress. Photos of Roof posing with the flag led to a societal reckoning that swept the South.

Less than a week after the killings in Charleston, S.C., Amazon, Walmart and eBay banned the sale of items bearing the symbol, also known as the “Southern Cross.” Conservative Southern politicians who had never said a critical word about the flag, along with many who had defended it as a legitimate and non-racist symbol of Southern heritage, came out against it. Writers like Charles Johnson of the Little Green Footballs blog penned thoughtful essays about why it should finally come down. On July 5, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered a variety of Confederate flags removed from the statehouse grounds. And on July 8, encouraged by conservative Gov. Nikki Haley, the South Carolina legislature passed a law that mandated the removal of the battle flag.

Nikki Haley
“American Kristallnacht”: In a move also described by the radical right as “cultural genocide,” Gov. Nikki Haley signs a bill removing the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse. Twenty-two days earlier, a 21-year-old flag enthusiast murdered nine people in a Charleston church. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Polls showed broad support for removing the flag from government property, based on how offensive it is to many people, especially people of color, because of its history representing a regime that fought to defend slavery. For most, furling the flag seemed a necessary if belated step in repudiating racism and racist ideas.

But some white people saw things very differently. Surprising numbers of Southerners were genuinely outraged at the attack on the flag that they continued to insist represented only the best of Southern culture, despite conclusive historical evidence to the contrary. The backlash brought thousands into the streets.

More than 50 pro-flag rallies were held around the country over the first weekend in July. The next weekend, there were similar demonstrations at nearly 20 sites across eight Southern states, including Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. While the number of protests and the audiences were smaller than that first weekend, two key protests in Ocala, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn., boasted impressive numbers, 5,000 and 500 respectively.

That was just the start.

Between June 17, the day of the Charleston massacre, and Aug. 26, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) counted 218 pro-battle flag rallies, most of them in the former Confederate states. A total of more than 20,000 people turned out, based on the SPLC’s tally. At least 67 more were planned in the coming weeks. Many of the rallies were spontaneous; but, giving the lie to the slogan of “Heritage, not Hate,” racist groups like the Klan also played key roles in the backlash.

Lost Cause: Across the South, as a movement to defrock the symbols of the Confederacy picked up steam, defenders of the battle flag struggled to make their case. (Nick Tomecek/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)

Pride? Or Hate?

Perhaps the reaction should not have come as such a surprise.

The battle flag has long had a major constituency, especially in the South. Facebook pages run by local “flagger” groups began popping up almost overnight after the Charleston killings, even as most Americans mourned the victims’ deaths. The association of the pennant with slavery, segregation, the Dixiecrats, and the Ku Klux Klan in its battle against civil rights, seems to matter not a lick to certain white Southerners. Shocking numbers of whites see the flag in positive terms.

The Confederate Battle Flag: Hate or heritage charts

In early July, a CNN poll found that 57% of all Americans viewed the flag more as a symbol of Southern pride than of racism. And these views have held fairly steady in recent years, with a 2000 poll also finding that most Americans saw it then, as well, as a symbol of Southern pride. But, to the surprise of no one, opinions are sharply divided by race. In the recent CNN poll, 72% of African Americans saw the battle flag as a symbol of racism, while just 25% of whites agreed.

The racial divide is widest in the South. While 75% of Southern whites describe the flag as a symbol of pride and 18% call it a symbol of racism, those figures are almost exactly reversed among the Southern black population — just 11% see the flag as a sign of pride, while 75% see it as a symbol of racism.

But white support for the flag is linked to a lack of educational achievement. Among white people with a college degree, 51% see it as a symbol of pride and 41% as a symbol of racism. By contrast, 73% of whites who do not have a college degree see it as symbol of Southern pride and just 18% see it as symbolizing racism.

Dylann Roof, who was 21 at the time of the shooting and had dropped out of high school several years before, revered the flag. Like a surprising number of his peers, he repeatedly took photos of himself proudly flying the banner.

Hate Groups Step In

Although most flaggers have no known history in racist groups and say their support has nothing to do with hatred, organized hate groups have played a key role in fighting what they describe as the “American Kristallnacht” — a reference to the 1938 pogrom against Jews and Jewish property throughout Germany. The SPLC has documented the involvement of six major hate groups, sometimes as organizers.

The most prominent have been the neo-Confederate League of the South (LOS), which seeks a second Southern secession and the creation of a white-run country in the Southeast, and the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) — the same group that Roof cited as his first inspiration as a white supremacist (see story, p. 20). Other involved hate groups have included the racist Traditionalist Youth Network, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and two neo-Nazi groups, the Aryan Nations and the much larger National Socialist Movement.

The LOS, a longtime defender of the Confederate battle flag and the Confederacy, was particularly well positioned to take advantage of the situation. The group has long railed against “Southern demographic displacement” and what it calls “cultural genocide” at the hands of nonwhite immigrants to the South.

“It lifts my spirits to see so many of you here to fight for your heritage, and to defend your livelihoods, and to protect what you love most and hold dear,” William Flowers, vice chairman of the Georgia LOS chapter, told a pro-flag rally from the front steps of the Alabama state Capitol in one example in late June. “We are pushing now to reach out and grab the hearts and minds of our fellow southerners and to pull them into believing that the politicians have betrayed them.”

A month later, LOS President Michael Hill sounded considerably more militant. “Southerners, arm yourselves, organize yourselves, and be prepared to defend your lives and property from those lawless elements that threaten them,” he wrote. “We encourage all patriotic Southerners to join us… . Together, we can turn back the assaults of the Cultural Marxists and put them on the run.”

Members of the CCC, which has described black people as a “retrograde species of humanity,” have been highly active as well. Bradley Dean Griffin — a CCC board member who recently married Renee Baum, the daughter of Gordon Baum, who founded and led the CCC until his death in March — bemoaned the fate of white Southerners online and at various rallies after the Charleston killings.

“It’s not just Southerners who are under attack,” Griffin wrote in one essay in late July. “We’ve recently seen that ‘Confederate Lives Don’t Matter’ in Indiana or Ohio either. ‘Confederate’ these days is really just a synonym for a class of undesirable White people. This is why we need a nation of our own.”

Another CCC board member who has been active is James Edwards, host of the racist radio program “The Political Cesspool.” Edwards, who was at one time a member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, has made a habit of inviting neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites, and other white nationalists on his program. In early July, he organized a Memphis rally that drew more than 500 supporters in response to the city’s decision to remove a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest — a Confederate officer who later became the first grand wizard, or national leader, of the Ku Klux Klan — and to exhume his body from an adjoining grave.

“It’s certainly not as if our societal overseers didn’t hate the South and any symbol of our unique identity before the murders that took place in Charleston occurred,” Edwards wrote on his website. “But they have since fully exploited the tragedy in order to launch an attempt to completely eradicate the Confederate flag and any memory of the righteous cause for which it stood.”

Edwards’ paranoid rants about “societal overseers” and their attacks on the flag are typical of the LOS’ fear-mongering about a “genocide” allegedly aimed at white Southerners. The group recently went so far as to compare efforts to remove Confederate symbols and memorials to the destruction by the Islamic State, a violent Islamist group, of ancient monuments and historic treasures in Iraq and Syria.

Defenders of the Confederate battle flag came out at the South Carolina Statehouse (where a Klan rally was also held a week later)

The Role of the SCV

The largest pro-Confederate group in the South is the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), whose thousands of members are male descendants of Confederate soldiers. Although nominally opposed to racism — and, in the case of many members, sincerely so — the SCV played an important part in organizing the pro-flag movement that sprang up after the Charleston slaughter. The “heritage” group organized rallies and often shared the podium with hate group members.

A week after Gov. Bentley ordered the removal of Confederate flags from the Alabama Capitol grounds, two members of the SCV — Mike Williams, the group’s adjutant, and Andy Bodenheimer — led an “Alabama Heritage Rally.” They shared the podium at that rally with many leaders from the LOS. Bodenheimer, in fact, is a member of both the SCV and the LOS, and his case is not rare.

The SCV said little about its connection to the openly racist LOS, whose president opposes racial intermarriage and has described “white people in the South” as “preserving a kith and kin, blood and soil nation” established by Europeans.

But when it came to the Klan, the SCV did try to distance itself.

“The Sons of Confederate Veterans has a strictly enforced ‘hate’ policy,” Charles Kelly Barrow, the SCV commander in chief, said in a press release after the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were granted a permit to rally for the flag in July at the South Carolina Capitol. “Anyone with ties to any racist organization or hate group is denied membership. Any member developing ties to these organizations will be immediately expelled. Prohibited organizations include the KKK, American Nazi Party, the National Alliance, or any organization expressing racist ideals or violent overthrow of the United States government.”

Given longstanding ties between the SCV and members of various hate groups, that seems a pretty empty statement. Over much of the last 15 years, the SCV has been rent by an internal civil war between racists — the so-called “Lunatics” faction — and the history clubbers, derisively termed the “Grannies” by their opponents. While neither side has won a definitive victory, the SCV has seen more than its share of racist activists attempting to control the organization.

A primary example is Kirk Lyons, a white supremacist lawyer from North Carolina who was married on the grounds of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations and has defended a number of racist criminals. Lyons also is the chief trial counsel of the Southern Legal Resource Center, a pro-Confederate organization that defends the battle flag in various court disputes. Lyons has been a leading figure in the SCV for years and plays a prominent role in the group’s youth camps. In the early 2000s, he at one point said he could see no reason for the SCV to ban Klan members.

The CCC is also linked quite closely to the SCV. In January 2014, the CCC’s founder, the late Gordon Baum, and two other CCC members — all of them also members of the SCV — were awarded “SCV War Veteran Medals” by the group’s Missouri chapter. The list of SCV members active in hate groups is long.

Fury and the Future

And then there were the unvarnished haters. While most of the pro-flag groups tried to seem reasonable, some individuals just didn’t care.

At a major Aug. 1 rally at Stone Mountain, Ga. — the 1915 birthplace of the “second era” Klan — demonstrators were asked to abide by a “no racial slurs” rule. But, as reporters noted, not everyone listened. One young black woman was called a “greasy monkey n----- b----.” And a protester, Allan Croft, was quoted saying, “Yeah, we didn’t want our daughters to marry you and we didn’t want our children to go to school with you.” Similar comments were made at other rallies.

Others allegedly moved beyond words. At the Loyal White Knights’ rally in Columbia, S.C., a member of an antigovernment group from Virginia came with “the intent to instill violence and hate among the other attendees with the ultimate goal of enticing riots to break out,” according to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. Stephen Loughman was later arrested for his activities.

And in Douglasville, Ga., a group of flaggers either crashed or simply passed by a black child’s birthday event on July 25. The flaggers, some of them reportedly armed and all driving trucks flying numerous Confederate flags, roared by the party. One black witness said she had heard them threatening to “kill y’all n------” and, in one video taken of the event, the same epithet can be heard from the trucks.

For all the anger, the campaign to remove Confederate symbols from public property, government calendars and elsewhere continues. In August, Georgia dropped Confederate Memorial Day from its official calendar. The same month, a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, was packed up and wheeled away from a prominent location on the Austin campus of the University of Texas. Similar moves elsewhere are underway or being planned.

A century and a half after the end of the Civil War, despite enormous opposition from racists and those who misunderstand history, the Confederate battle flag, at least, may be losing its grip on the South. As historian Gordon Rhea suggested in a 2011 address to the Charleston Library Society, that is certainly a good thing.

“It is no accident that Confederate symbols have been the mainstay of white supremacist organizations, from the Ku Klux Klan to the skinheads,” Rhea said that day. “They did not appropriate the Confederate battle flag simply because it was pretty. They picked it because it was the flag of a nation dedicated to their ideals, i.e., ‘that the negro is not equal to the white man.’ The Confederate flag, we are told, represents heritage, not hate. But why should we celebrate a heritage grounded in hate, a heritage whose self-avowed reason for existence was the exploitation and debasement of a sizeable segment of its population?”