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Would Lowering Confederate Flag Betray Southern History?

The debate over the Confederate flag has put its historical significance under new scrutiny.
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Among the hundreds of people who rallied for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina's State House on Tuesday was Don Doyle, a history professor with an expertise in the Civil War and its impact on the world.

Doyle, who teaches at the University of South Carolina, said he knew sincere and sensible people who believed the flag was an important Civil War emblem and relic of Southern heritage that deserved to fly over government buildings. He respected their opinions. But he argued that the flag's historical significance has long been eclipsed by its more modern image as a banner of hate.

"I'm a historian, so I'm not in the business of erasing history, and I don't mind engaging in troubled history," Doyle said by phone from Columbia, as chants of "Bring it down" echoed around him. "But I think that belongs in classrooms and museums and not in public spaces, where it can appear that the state is honoring a symbol of segregation and slavery."

This is the answer many historians add to the debate, now raging in the wake of the Charleston church massacre, over the Confederate flag's position in civic life.

Originally designed at the start of the Civil War, the battle flag was first raised by the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. After the war, the battle flag and other "Stars and Bars" standards were adopted as a way to honor fallen Southern soldiers and used as an emblem of Southern pride. But it didn't enter national politics until 1948, when it was adopted by a splinter group of Southern Democrats, calling themselves "Dixiecrats," who split from the party in opposition to its support of civil rights.

Displays of the flag picked up in 1954, when the Supreme Court declared public school segregation illegal. That popularity continued into the Civil Rights era. That's when several states began flying the flag over public buildings or incorporated it into its official flags. The Confederate battle flag was also co-opted by racist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan.

Over the decades, the flag came to embody the South's complicated relationship with history, and with race. It served as an emblem of popular Southern culture, symbolizing defiance and independence. It also became analogous with bigotry.

For decades, civil rights groups have demanded that the battle flag be removed from flags and other civic displays. Mississippi remains the only state that still incorporates the actual crossed stripes and stars into its state flag.

South Carolina agreed in 2000 to move the Confederate flag from atop the capital dome to another spot on the State House grounds.

The killing of nine worshipers at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, allegedly by a man who'd published photos of himself online with the Confederate battle flag, sparked new calls to put the banner to rest. National retailers, including Walmart, Sears, eBay and Etsy, have announced plans to stop selling Confederate flag-related merchandise. Virginia said it would stop offering license plates with the banner's image, and a Pennsylvania flag manufacturer announced Tuesday it would stop producing the flags to "help to foster racial unity and tolerance in our country."

Just as immediately came a backlash from the flag's defenders who argued that the flag had nothing to do with the murders. Among them are South Carolina State Sen. Lee Bright, who told the Washington Post that the flag's role was being taken out of context and that it risked becoming a victim of a "war of political correctness."

"We're on a slippery slope," said Jeff O'Cain, a former commander of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter and a history buff, told NBC News. "You’re going to try to eradicate history so that it doesn’t offend anybody. It already happened! We can’t change history."

But Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said it was hard to justify the argument that the flag remains an important historical relic, because it's impossible to separate it from its connection to segregationists and white supremacists.

"At this point, you can't divorce the flag from those attitudes and those efforts," Bullock said. "A person could still be proud of the heroics of his great great great grandfather who fought at Gettysburg or wherever else and he could still tell his children about it, and you don't necessarily need the flag to do that."

The Confederate cause won't be lost to history, he added. "If that's your concern, that people understand what was happening in 1861, it's still going to be there."