The Confederate battle flag is suddenly in the news – again.
Following the fatal shootings of nine African-Americans inside a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the nation learned that the alleged shooter had used the Confederate flag in a racist manifesto posted online.
The flag issue immediately took hold in the public consciousness.
Even controversy-shy businesses moved quickly. Within the space of less than 24 hours, retailing giants Wal-Mart, Sears, eBay and Amazon all announced they would no longer sell Confederate-themed merchandise.
The flag itself was born a few miles outside Washington, D.C., during the first major land battle of the Civil War.
A simple roadside marker in Fairfax, Virginia, describes how “amid the smoke of combat” during the First Battle of Manassas in 1861, Confederate soldiers had trouble distinguishing which troops were carrying the American flag and which were hoisting what was then the flag of the rebellious Southern states.
That’s because the first Confederate flag resembled Betsy Ross’ Colonial-era flag, with red and white stripes aligned next to a ring of white stars on a blue field. The similarity was not a good thing on the battlefield.
Confederate Gens. Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard and William L. Cabell approved the design for a new flag: square and red, with diagonally crossed blue bars and stars – the Confederate battle flag.
“There was a lot of confusion” during the early part of the Civil War, said Michael Shumaker, a retired U.S. Navy officer who championed the effort to install the historic marker in 2007. “There was a need to have a flag that was distinctly different.”
A man who knows – and taught many of us – a thing or two about the Civil War, said it’s time to retire the flag.
“It is important for us to escape the specific gravity of all of the things that caused the Civil War, and the main thing that caused the Civil War was slavery,” said filmmaker Ken Burns. “That Dixie flag is a shorthand for the perpetuation of those values.”
Tarleton State University history professor Dr. Michael Landis is a scholar of Civil War politics and he says many of his students often come to class bearing Confederate flag symbols. But he said fewer students are sporting the flag as they learn more about its history and that of the Civil War.
“The Confederate flag is more of a 20th century creation,” he said. “Most of southern history was written after the Civil War. That idea of the southern way of life, the moonlight and magnolias idea, that was all created after the war.
After the war, many former rebel leaders such as Jefferson Davis, traveled the country making speeches and being interviewed and they “changed the version of things,” says Landis. The war, he says, was quite clearly about slavery, but in their new version, it was about states’ rights and the “southern way of life.”
Then the flag began to be adopted by groups supporting segregation and Jim Crow laws, Dixiecrats, as well as overt hate groups such as the Klan.
For a history professor like Landis, these distorted views of history just prove that history can be manipulated and distorted.
“This was deliberate, not accidental,” says Landis.
It seems like many more are now agreeing with Landis.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.