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AN ONGOING DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE PLACE AND MEANING OF THE
CONFEDERATE BATTLE FLAG, 150 YEARS AFTER THE CIVIL WAR.

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Some language may be offensive.

The battle flag of the Confederacy is one of the most divisive symbols in American history. From a symbol of racism to one of regional pride, a historical artifact to mindless bumper sticker, the battle flag signals many different things to many different people. And its meaning evolves over time.

To get a sense of what the flag means today, we asked people across the country to tell us from their perspective. Here, you can explore some of their answers along with related news items and historical material that, together, help contextualize the battle flag’s place in America 150 years after the Civil War — and the ways we might still be fighting it.

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IDENTITY IS A CHOICE

To Goad Gatsby, the identity he's created with Hip Hop means more to him than his Confederate ancestry. "Identity is a choice," Gatsby says. "Heritage is just something you're told." While many Virginia Flaggers choose to celebrate their Confederate heritage by waving the battle flag, Gatsby says that by doing so, they're implicitly supporting the racist ideology of their ancestors, too.

The flaggers maintain that the flag is a symbol of "heritage, not hate," but can we choose to erase the hate from our heritage? If heritage is a long, ever-growing line of ideas and objects we value about the past, what are the consequences of ignoring the dark parts?

Below, we take a look at a few other individuals and groups who, like Goad Gatsby, have questioned, confronted, or reappropriated the battle flag to express their own identity.

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The paintings of Leo Twiggs

An Orangeburg, South Carolina artist says his paintings depicting the Confederate battle flag are meant to "help people understand their shared history."

More on Twiggs

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'It's my flag now."

As part of his “Yeezus” tour, Kanye West began wearing the battle flag and including it on his merchandise, hoping to elicit emotional reactions and questions about modern racism.

"React how you want… You know the Confederate flag represented slavery in a way – that's my abstract take on what I know about it. So I made the song 'New Slaves.' So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It's my flag. Now what are you going to do?"

Listen to conversation

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Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table

In June 2014, a group of chefs led by Mississippian John Currence organized a protest dinner against the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which (effective July 2014) allows the state's business owners to refuse service to customers on the grounds of religious belief.

Currence argued the legislation could lead to discriminate against gay and lesbian patrons, or others whose identities and values clash with conservative Christian business owners'. The invitation to the protest dinner featured a rainbow Confederate battle flag.

More on Currence

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(Wikimedia Commons/Kilgore80)

'The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag'

Artist John Sims first exhibited the battle flag hanging from a noose at Gettysburg College in 2004 as a part of his ongoing series Recoloration Proclamation: The Gettysburg Redress.

The series, Sims writes, "targets specific traditional symbols of southern heritage, which are inextricably linked to slavery and racism in America" and also includes dozens of recolored Confederate flags, a contemporary rewrite of the Gettysburg Address, contemporary recordings of the song "Dixie, and a documentary film.

See 'Recoloration Proclamation'

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(Photobucket/stagolee7)

NuSouth Apparel

In the late 1990s, Sherman Evans and Angel Quintero set out to change American race relations through T-shirts. Their business, NuSouth Apparel, branded itself (and every single product) with a reimagined battle flag in red and green, the colors of the African liberation movement.

Evans and Quintero saw their efforts as a way to gain closure from the nation's history of slavery and white supremacy. "I am not threatened by the past. History is history," Evans told The Wall Street Journal in 1999.

In another interview with Virtual Advisor productions, Evans says: "Everyone understands oppression in one way or another. And everyone needs to be enlightened. They need to be free and liberated from it. That's what NuSouth does."

More about NuSouth

Roots and Causes

Karen Cooper is well aware that some people think the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of racism. But to her, the flag represents resistence to tyranny, or the federal government. Cooper says the North started the Civil War by invading the South; that the South had a right to secede from the Union. "Yet, the battle flag still holds all the weight and the guilt on it," Cooper says. "It's not right."

There are many reasons why the battle flag's legacy is fraught with racial tension. But the root reason, perhaps, stems from the decades-long debates about what caused the Civil War, and what it was about. Among many Virginia Flaggers and other pro-Confederate flag groups, it is often said the Civil War wasn't about slavery, but the sovereign rights of states.

According to a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center, 48% of the Americans say the Civil War was mainly about states' rights, 38% say it was mainly about slavery, and 9% say that it was about both equally.

Yet, of the four states that issued official "Declarations of Causes" for their secession, all four strongly defend slavery, according to research from Civil War Trust. The charts below, recreated using data from the Civil War Trust, show how many words were devoted to the issues raised in each state's Declaration as a percentage of the whole:

Georgia
georgia-chart
Mississippi
miss-chart
Texas
georgia-sec
South Carolina
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Slavery States' Rights Context* Lincon's Election Economic Issues Military Protection

* "Context" refers to procedural language and/or historical exposition that is not connected to a specific argument.


If you've got some time, we encourage you to read the documents in their entirety. But here are excerpts from each declaration.

Georgia
"That reason was [the North's] fixed purpose to limit, restrain, and finally abolish slavery in the States where it exists. The South with great unanimity declared her purpose to resist the principle of prohibition to the last extremity."

Full text

SOUTH CAROLINA
"Those [Union] States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States."


Full text

MISSISSIPPI
"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth… These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin."


Full text

TEXAS

"The servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations."


Full text

The flag as intimidation

"When you see a black person, hide your Confederate flags," says Brandon Hicks, a law student at Washington & Lee University. To Hicks and to other members of The Committee, a student group he helped organize with Anjelica Hendricks that demanded the removal of the battle flags from the on-campus chapel named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate battle flag is a sign of racial intimidation.

That's not without reason, according to John Coski, author of The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem. Though the flag's use was mostly limited to memorial and reconciliation ceremonies after the Civil War up through World War II, many political groups -- as well as ordinary citizens -- adopted the symbol in the 1950s to fight a new battle against racial integration.

Below, we take a look at how the flag was used -- and by who -- as a sign of racial violence and intimidation, and how its one-time exclusive association with Confederate heritage diffused into a more contemporary, controversial symbol.

Off the battle field

In the camp of the 44th Georgia Company C, the Confederate battle flag is displayed unfurled at the end of the row of soldiers' tents, in eyesight of the captain's quarters. But there's differenes of opinion within the Company on how the battle flag should be displayed in the real world.

If you ask Clark van Buskirk, the captain of the 44th who's got a "South Will Rise Again" bumper sticker on the back of his New Jersey-plated "War Wagon" trailer, he'll tell you the flag represents his inner thoughts: the south should have won; the U.S. constitution as ratified by the 13 colonies. But if you ask around the Company, you'll get a bit more variety in terms of what the flag represents, and what should be done with it off the battle field. Below, we've collected some of those thoughts from the 44th, as well as those from other re-enactors on both sides of the fight. If you'd like to add your thoughts to the mix, tweet us @battleflagdoc or send us an email.

"A few years ago I bought a T-shirt. And for everyone who bought this T-shirt, there was a donation being made to restore an actual battle flag from the Civil War. I made the donation; I got the T-shirt. It's got a picture of the rebel battle flag on the back.

I don't wear it because I know it's very sensitive to people. It may be my right to wear it but I don't have the right to ... wear something that's going to make somebody uncomfortable. If I wear a Civil War Preservation Trust hat, it's got both flags. It's got the Union flag and the Confederate flag. And yet if I wear that I know some people might not see both the flags; they just see one.

So I choose where I would wear it because I want to be respectful of other people. I might look at it one way; someone else looks at it another. And I got plenty of T-shirts and hats I can wear ... and I dont want to cause controversy."

James Marshall, 44th Georgia Company C

"[The Confederate battle flag] is such an emotional thing. A lot of people have so many different opinions about it and are very sensitive. You have to be understanding about it.

The only time I display the Confederate battle flag or wear this uniform, or do anything representative of the Confederacy is here. To me, this is how you express the sacrifice and honor the sacrifice of soldiers from the Confederacy who fought these battles. This, to me, is the place.

In the outside world, it's far too sensitive a symbol. I'm happy to talk about it but, you know, keep it in a perspective of American history."

Michael Lordi, 44th Georgia Company C

"While the Confederate flag may not be intrinsically racist, it represents the entirety of southern history, much of which was racist. There is a connection to racism and the Confederate flag. People have the right to be offended, but they should not assume the motives of the person owning the flag, because it means something different to each person ...

The flag is not the issue. It is those who use it for hate agendas. To spread racism and instead of honor they dishonor all those who served the Confederacy. TRUE. Not all southerners went to war to defend slavery and scores of them were too poor to be in possession of, or own slaves. BUT yet fought under a Constitutional form of government both Federal and State, which believed in and allowed for slavery and the expansion thereof. Therefore they were the proxies of slavery whether intention on their behalf or not.

I do NOT hate the flag or view it as a racist symbol in the hands of historians or those who teach the truth. I do view it as a symbol of slavery and racism in the hands of those who have not a clue about history but rather support anarchy and racial purity. I fly one occasionally but only with and under the US Flag. I fly it because of my family who many had no choice.

John Tucker, formerly:
Staff Officer to General Lee HQ’s ANV. (NY- Eastern Re-enactors Association)
57th North Carolina Vol Inf. Co A. 1st Lt.
52nd Virginia Inf. – ANV Provost Marshall Rank of Captain of the Calvary
33rd Virginia Infantry
Levi's/Barrs Artillery Battery Former Artillery Battery Commander, 1st Lt.

The personal collection of Dent Wildman Myers


Dent 'Wildman' Myers owns and operates Wildman's Civil War Surplus Shop in Kennessaw, Georgia. In the front of the shop, Myers sells what he calls "tourist trap items" such as Confederate battle flags, T-shirts and reading material. But if you pay him a quarter and unlatch a small, wirey chain into the back room, Dent's Civil War shop becomes a museum of his own making. He says this is where he keeps "the good stuff," his personal collection of memorabilia and artifacts from Jim Crow America. "It's like sticking your finger in a socket," Myers says about many visitors' first experiences in the place.

It costs a quarter to visit the museum of Dent's collections in the back of his Civil War shop in Kennessaw, Georgia.

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The material itself is offensive. We have included it in this project because it is real. Not only real in the sense of Myers' collection, but real in that each item is a physical, undeniable testament to the history of racism in everyday, American culture. While some of Myers' more striking items, such as depictions of picaninnies and mammies, are hardly commonplace today, it's worth noting that other items, such as KKK business cards and Confederate battle flag memorabilia, are hardly artifacts.



(Please note, the photos below can be offensive. Continue to the next chapter if you'd rather not confront this kind of thing.)

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Myers says he collects these items because he doesn't want to see them lost. "History is to share," he says. But, unlike established museums such as the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Big Rapids, Michigan, Myers offers little outward-facing explanation of his collection, and how he hopes people understand it.

Maybe, then, what's more significant than the collection itself is Myers' relationship to it. Here are a few of his more interpretive displays:

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Most of his collection is stricly not for sale. But just outside of the museum's doorway is a whole rack of Confederate battle flags for purchase.

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Myers says they're his best sellers.

Credits

Produced by Logan Jaffe and Zachary Sigelko

Battle Flag was produced with a grant from the Chicago Digital Media Production Fund, a project of Voqal administered by Chicago Filmmakers.


We owe special thanks to: Mackenzie Brooks, who inspired this project on a trip to Lexington, Virginia; Phineas X Jones, who provided initial artwork; John Coski, who provided invaluable guidance (for a deeper historical look at this subject, please read his book The Confederate Battle Flag); Susan Hathaway of the Virginia Flaggers; The Sons of Confederate Veterans Iowa division; The special collections library at Washington and Lee University; Black Liquid, and the crew of Hip Hop for the Rest of Us on WRIR; Our patient compatriots at Some Office; Our AirBnB hosts Alison, Andrew, Peter, and Tiffany.

Calligraphy and illustration by Jenna Blazevich of Vichcraft Design Studio.

Published May 26, 2015