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Ben and Flora in blood wipe scene
Ben wipes blood from sister Flora's mouth
with Rebel battle flag in Birth of a Nation
after she leaps from a cliff to save herself
from rape by a black soldier.
It was all innocent like, no offense meant, of course, just a commemoration in Raleigh, North Carolina, of what the antebellum House of Representatives in the old state capitol looked like in the middle of the Civil War—pardon me, make that the War of Northern Aggression—in 1863. A historical display that was going to remain hanging in that building until April 2015, the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Union troops.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory had initially defended the placement of the flag in the building. But, after stepped-up criticism occurred because of an Associated Press story on the flag, it was removed Friday night and will possibly be placed in the NC Museum of History across the street. Which is where it belongs.

State Historic Sites Director Keith Hardison told the AP's Michael Biesecker Thursday that the flag should be seen in its historical context:

"Our goal is not to create issues," said Hardison, a Civil War re-enactor and history buff. "Our goal is to help people understand issues of the past. ... If you refuse to put something that someone might object to or have a concern with in the exhibit, then you are basically censoring history."

North Carolina NAACP president Rev. William Barber was shocked Friday when he was shown a photo of the flag by the AP.

"He is right that it has a historical context," Barber said. "But what is that history? The history of racism. The history of lynchings. The history of death. The history of slavery. If you say that shouldn't be offensive, then either you don't know the history, or you are denying the history."

The folks who chose to put the battle flag up in the first place and leave it there until 2015, could just as well have been commemorating the resurrection of that particular flag in 1915. It was then that the film Birth of a Nation rejuvenated the terrorist Ku Klux Klan, which had been crushed a few years after it arose in the wake of Confederate defeat, although its ultra-violent white supremacist values had found other perches in the White League and the Red Shirts who drove blacks out of office and laid the foundation for the first round of Southern apartheid through the infamous Jim Crow laws.

Until 1915, when that spectacular and deeply racist Lost Cause saga appeared (being the first film ever shown in the White House by special request of a delighted Woodrow Wilson), the Rebel battle flag was less publicly associated with the Confederacy 50 years after its demise than was the official Stars and Bars, a flag with a square blue field circled with stars, first seven and eventually 13, and three bars (red ones at top and bottom with a white one in the center). Continue reading about the film and the impact of the public flying of the Rebel flag below the fold.

In the film, a rectangular Rebel battle flag tied around her waist, Flora Cameron flees through the forest from Gus, a freedman who has become a captain in the Union army. When he ignores her commands not to come closer, she leaps off a cliff. Her brother, Ben, a secret Klansman who has followed her into the forest, finds her broken on the rocks, barely alive. He wipes blood from her mouth with the flag as she dies in his arms. Gus is captured and "tried" by the Klan and lynched. (If you can stomach it, you can see this unfold starting about 2:02 here.)

Birth of a Nation meant the rebirth of the Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia, the same year as the film and the first stirrings of prominence for the Rebel flag. The Klan's largest growth was not, however, in the South but elsewhere. Klansmen from Bellingham, Washington, to Washington, DC, marched beneath the Stars and Stripes as often as not. But the second Klan's glory days outside the Old Confederacy were short. By 1930, its membership had collapsed nationwide. Ever so slowly, throughout the South, the association of the Klan and the battle flag became ever more a symbol of white supremacy.

Battle Flag of Tennessee
The square version of the Rebel battle flag
 of the Army of Tennessee, 1864

Spurred in 1943 by a Klan splinter group whose members saluted the battle flag first used extensively by the Army of Tennessee in both square and rectangular versions and later by other Rebel armies, by the end of World War II it was increasingly flown in support of continued segregation, often atop state capitol buildings. In 1956, a year after I left my birth state of Georgia, the legislature there added the square version of the battle flag to the state flag in direct response to Brown v. Board of Education, the unanimous Supreme Court decision rejecting the "separate but equal" lie as it applied to segregated schools throughout the nation.

The flag stayed that way until 2003, when Georgia, after long public debate, adopted a new flag more reminiscent of the Stars and Bars. Progress of a sort, I suppose. A square version of the battle flag remains today in the Mississippi state flag after a statewide vote supported its retention by 64 percent to 36 percent. Coincidentally, no doubt, just over 36 percent of Mississippi's population is black.

Its defenders continue to argue that the battle flag has nothing to do with slavery or racism or violent opposition to civil rights activists 100 years after the Confederacy was defeated. Just good old Southern heritage. To many people in and out of the South, the conflict over the flying or hanging of the battle flag on public property (outside of Confederate war memorials, museums and the like) may make no never-mind. But for many Americans, black and white, the impact of the public flying of that flag of treachery and enslavement and terrorism is still cause for fury.

Rev. Barber has it exactly right: "If you say [the history of that flag] shouldn't be offensive, then either you don't know the history, or you are denying the history."

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Fri Mar 29, 2013 at 09:43 PM PDT.

Also republished by Black Kos community.

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