East Tennesseans disagree over Confederate flag’s meaning

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – States around the nation are considering action over Confederate flags and other Confederate symbols in the wake of the South Carolina church shooting. Alleged shooter Dylann Roof was seen posing with the Confederate battle flag in pictures posted online before the massacre.

The governor of South Carolina has called on her state’s legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds. Mississippi’s house speaker called the battle flag emblem offensive and said it needs to be removed from the flag.

Virginia’s governor is moving to ban the Confederate flag from state license plates. Governor Bill Haslam said Tuesday he’d also be in favor of removing Confederate flags from specialty license plates.

A local chapter of the organization behind those specialty license plates, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the meaning of the Confederate flag has been twisted, and it shouldn’t be seen as a racist or hateful symbol.

“Those who win the war get to write the history. And that’s what has been done in this particular case,” said Scott Hall, a local Sons of the Confederate Veterans member. He said any hate tied to the Confederate flag is a reflection of incorrect history.

Hall said his ancestors, who were Confederate soldiers, fought for their state, and had nothing to do with the racist stigma that he said mistakenly surrounds the flag today and is seen as part the inspiration in the Charleston shooting.

“We’re talking about someone who took a gun and shot nine people that didn’t deserve to be killed. You’re going to blame a Southern culture on that? You’re going to blame Confederate soldiers 150 years ago on that? That has nothing to do with what those soldiers did 150 when they were called by their states to defend their states from invasion,” he said.

The disagreement centers on what time period qualifies as the history of the flag. What the flag means to people has changed over the years. While supporters like Hall see it as a source of family pride and history, others tie the meaning to how it’s been used more recently.

Jack Neely, a long time East Tennessee historian, said it’s hard to blame people, especially people in East Tennessee, for seeing the Confederate flag as offensive. He said it goes back to the 1950s, when Clinton High School was one of the first in the nation to desegregate, and the flag was used as a sign that the move wasn’t wanted.

“People who opposed black children going to school with white children waived Confederate flags all around Clinton High,” he said. “They even gave them away and had T-shirts.”

As a historian, Neely said it’s hard to pin the changing meaning of the flag, but popular opinion is becoming clear.

“Lately, I think it is perceived as a racist symbol by most Americans. Whether that’s just or not that’s how it’s perceived,” he said. “When racists use the flag it’s hard to counter that.”

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