For a brief moment, after a white supremacist carried out a massacre of black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., it seemed as though the Confederate battle flag, that most divisive of symbols, might soon be on its way out of the American political arena.
But now that explosive and complicated vestige of the Old South is back, in a new — and, to some Americans, newly disturbing — context. During President-elect Donald J. Trump’s campaign, followers drawn to his rallies occasionally displayed the flag and other Confederate iconography. Since the election, his supporters and others have displayed the flag as a kind of rejoinder to anti-Trump protesters in places such as Durango, Colo.; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Hampton, Va.; Fort Worth; and Traverse City, Mich.
On Election Day in Silverton, Ore., the flag appeared at a high school Trump rally, where students reportedly told Hispanic classmates, “Pack your bags; you’re leaving tomorrow.” The day after, at Kenyon College in Ohio, the college’s president, Sean M. Decatur, spoke to a worried campus, describing his discomfort at seeing Confederate flags on display in the nearby city of Mount Vernon.
Dorothy Robinson, 37, said that seeing the battle flag flying at a traditional postelection unity parade in her hometown, Georgetown, Del., felt “like someone had punched me in the gut.”
Those who have publicly embraced the flag are a small minority of the more than 60 million Americans who voted for Mr. Trump in the Nov. 8 election.
But these incidents, and hundreds of reports of insults and threats directed at minorities and others, are forcing Americans to confront vexing questions about the future of race relations under Mr. Trump and the extent to which his campaign has animated white resentment and even a budding white nationalism.
The emergence of the flag in a postelection context also comes as liberals and others have harshly criticized Mr. Trump for appointing as his chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, a website they accuse of trafficking in anti-Semitic, misogynist and anti-Muslim ideas.
Shortly after the June 17, 2015, Charleston massacre, an article posted on Breitbart argued that the Confederacy was “a patriotic and idealistic cause,” and that its flag “proclaims a glorious heritage.”
“Every tree, every rooftop, every picket fence, every telegraph pole in the South should be festooned with the Confederate battle flag,” the author, Gerald Warner, wrote. “Hoist it high and fly it with pride.”
How much the flag’s resurgence reflects anything more than the sentiments of those who fly it remains unclear.
Mr. Trump, a native New Yorker, declared shortly after announcing his candidacy that he supported a call by Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina to remove the flag from the grounds of the Statehouse there after the mass shooting in Charleston. The State Legislature, after passionate debate, eventually agreed to remove the flag.
“I think they should put it in the museum, let it go, respect whatever it is that you have to respect, because it was a point in time, and put it in a museum,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the time.
Historians say the battle flag has had shifting meanings over time: a symbol of white resistance to integration during the Civil Rights era, a more complicated but still racially charged symbol now.
SOURCE: RICHARD FAUSSET
The New York Times