How Did The Confederate Flag Come North?

Aug 18, 2017
Originally published on August 18, 2017 8:48 am

Christina Hunt Wood lives upstate, in Delaware County. In 2015, soon after the mass shootings at a church in Charleston, SC, she started noticing Confederate flags everywhere.

"You'd find them popping up on homes around town," she said.

Delaware County is almost entirely white. Christina is biracial; her dad is black. And to her, the flag is a symbol of hatred.

"I just felt like I was surrounded by really frightening people," she said.

Now she's helping lead an effort to ban Confederate flag sales at the Delaware County fair. She renewed her effort this past weekend in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville that left one woman dead and many others injured.

How did the flag cross the Mason-Dixon line into other parts of the country, including rural New York?

"It 'jumped' in part because of the 1948 'Dixiecrat' campaign of Strom Thurmond, which gave the Confederate Battle flag greater prominence than it had had for decades," said Fitzhugh Brundage, a historian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

In the 1950s and '60s, the flag united those who opposed desegregation, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision.    

"And then the flag was embraced in popular culture as a symbol of rebellion," through the image of countless bad-ass bikers, bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and TV shows like The Dukes of Hazard, Brundage said.

In 2015, after the Confederate flag was taken down from the state capitol in Charleston, hundreds of pro-flag rallies were organized across the country, many of them in non-Southern states like Washington, Oregon, Michigan and Ohio.

Mark Potok, an expert on the radical right who formerly worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center, argued that many working-class whites in New York or the Midwest don't care about the Confederacy. 

But Potok said as the country pays increased attention to the rights of the LGBT community and people of color, "many of them feel, quite strongly, that they're being left behind. That the society and the culture doesn't give a damn about them. And that somehow white people who 'founded' this nation are being forgotten," he said. 

Brian Levin, who runs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said the flag is "being used as a stick to say 'This is where we're drawing the line.'"

Levin thinks many people can easily relate to the pain or suffering of an individual.

"But when the harms are genocidal, or centuries-long, the ability for people to process it becomes much more limited," he said.

Levin hopes the violence in Charlottesville will prompt a sustained pushback against white supremacists and an accurate understanding of American history, in all its complexity.

"But it's going to get worse before it gets better," he said.

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