Historians wrestle with how a flag that stood for treason can be seen as patriotic. In the more than 150 years since it was adopted by the Confederacy, the battle flag has been redefined numerous times by the people who display it — at times worn as a symbol of youthful rebellion and at others wielded as a show of racial hatred.
The effort to pair it with displays of patriotism is met with resistance from those who note that Dixiecrats brandished the Confederate battle flag in opposition to the civil rights movement, and that neo-Nazis paraded it through Charlottesville last year.
“The flag can mean anything you want it to mean,” said Jarret Ruminski, author of “The Limits of Loyalty: Ordinary People in Civil War Mississippi” — often a poke in the eye of political correctness.
“But the history of the flag is very clear and unambiguously connected to white supremacy. That history is undeniable, whether people want to acknowledge it or not.”
The cognitive dissonance created by using Confederate symbols as patriotic emblems is familiar to John Coski, author of “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem.” He has documented a “dual loyalty” among some Southerners who believe the “Confederacy had a positive effect — making the nation stronger” and thus view its flag in a benign light.
The language and logic of the Lost Cause, which sought to sanitize Southern culture after the Civil War and emphasize the hardships faced by whites, has returned, according to W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Most of it can be cut and pasted to the 21st century,” Brundage said, noting that Southern soldiers saw themselves as victims whose Protestant values were under attack in a way that is often echoed by evangelicals today.