A fellow named John E. Price -- who describes himself as "a folklorist and doctoral candidate in American Studies," as well as "an award-winning lecturer in American Studies and Communications" -- has penned a contribution to the debate on the Confederate flag with the nuanced title "Yes, You're a Racist -- and a Traitor."
I don't really want to debate the merits of the Confederate flag right now. I think what's really important is showing brotherhood at a time when there have been multiple attacks, not just the infamous one, on black churches in the last week. I'm going to go through the exercise purely in the hope that it will help with that project, by giving reason to believe that most of the ordinary people who like the Confederate flag are not motivated by racism or hatred. That misperception may be alienating. If the proper work of the moment is brotherhood, it might be helpful to increase understanding.
Myself, I don't fly the Confederate flag. This is not because I personally view it as a symbol of racism, but out of respect for black Southerners I might meet for whom it is. I once turned down membership in a local motorcycle club -- a fun, family-oriented group that rides locally -- because their patch featured a Confederate flag (as well as an American flag and an eagle). None of them intended that to be threatening or off-putting to anyone. It was just part of a collection of patriotic symbols, an expression of regional as well as national patriotism. Patriotism, not treason.
It's silly to describe people flying the Confederate flag as "traitors" as if they themselves were waging war on the government. It's a serious question whether the battle flag is even a symbol of treason: the victors in the war prosecuted almost no one on that charge, and not people who fought under that flag but Northerners who took steps against their government without formally joining the rebellion. A thoughtful historian might question whether there's something about the American project itself, begun in rebellion against a sitting government to whose authority the authors had long submitted, that licenses revolution under certain circumstances. To be a traitor to the American project might sometimes better be done by submitting to authority than by resisting it. As historian William C. Davis explores at length, the founders of the Confederacy clearly saw themselves as the immediate heirs of Washington, Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers (many also slave-owners, who also wrote special protections for slavery into their constitution). One condemns them at some peril of condemning the American project itself, in which case it is hard to assert a ground on which loyalty to the American government is praiseworthy. This is especially true since the North did not undertake the war with the mission of destroying slavery, even if the South undertook the war to preserve it.
But those are questions for historians and philosophers. A folklorist should be interested in folklore, and what characterizes folklore is the way that symbols and meanings change over time. The original meaning of the symbol is beside the point. The fact that the generation that lost the Civil War rallied around it for honorable reasons after the war is beside the point. Those people have been dead for a hundred years. The question in folklore is: what do people mean by it today?
If you are a white Southerner of 60 or 70 years old, you came of age during the battles over segregation. For you, the flag's meaning is that it was about support for segregation, and you remember a South in which your parents' generation supported that policy so strongly that they drove every government official out of office who wasn't openly and vocally committed to it. But your generation was the first generation that questioned that policy. You went to schools that were being integrated. If you went into government, like the sheriff interviewed by VS Naipaul in his book A Turn in the South, you were the generation that turned things around. Unlike the sheriff at Selma, Sheriff Walraven used his deputies and volunteers to protect the civil rights marchers from the Klan -- and he did it while wearing the 1956 Georgia flag, Confederate battle flag and all, on his uniform's shoulder. That flag is his flag as much as it is anybody else's.
If instead you are 40 years old (and more than half of Americans are 40 or under), you were a child when one of the most popular television shows for children was The Dukes of Hazzard. That's probably your first association with the flag. The battles of segregation were already over before you ever became a schoolchild. If you were born in the South, you grew up with the flags adopted during the segregation battle long after that particular meaning had ceased to be important. The flags were just on the poles, without comment, except that they were the flags of home. So your basic associations as a child were a playful, cheerful television show without any trace of hate or racism, and home. As you grew up, if you grew up in the South, you learned about Lynyrd Skynyrd, who flew the flag as they sang "Sweet Home Alabama." There are references to the struggle over segregation in the song, but they are coded, and if you don't study the history you'll never know they are there.
If instead you are 20 years, even that stuff is ancient history. You might have seen The Dukes of Hazzard in syndication; otherwise, it is a not-very-great movie you probably didn't see. Classic rock stations are on the radio everywhere in America, so you probably know the Skynyrd song. Until you get old enough to encounter the stuff in history classes, you probably don't know anything else about the flag except that there was a war once, and this was the flag people from your home fought under. You see it around sometimes, and if you travel out of the South you don't see it.
What these people mean by the flag has nothing to do with racism, and certainly nothing to do with treason. Far from having waged war against their country, they're disproportionately likely to have fought war for the country: the South provides 40% of the volunteer military.
They're probably guilty of being insensitive. (But so is the guy who labels people 'traitors' on the basis of a protected act of free speech he hasn't bothered to understand.) They may instead be guilty of being ignorant, to the degree that they haven't studied the history and learned to consider the past associations of the symbol. There are a few who are guilty of racism, and who have sought out the flag to try to carry that meaning forward. Yet a committed racist like the Charleston killer could find no one to join him in his program: no skinheads, he wrote mournfully, and no Klan. I myself, living in rural Georgia, haven't seen anyone in a Klan uniform in decades. I assume you could search them out with effort, but they have vanished from the everyday texture of the South.
We haven't yet seen the outcome of the debate in South Carolina and Mississippi on the flag. In Georgia, our debate began with Democratic Governor Zell Miller trying (and failing) to remove the battle flag in the 1990s, and his Republican successor succeeding. The fact that we've elected political leadership that would attempt such a debate -- and conservative leaders, in the South -- ought to encourage even those for whom the flag has powerful and negative associations only. Racism is a very great evil, the worst evil brought by the Modern age, but it has lost a great deal of its strength. People for whom the flag has no negative associations, for whom it is nothing but a flag of home, are willing to consider setting it aside out of respect for the feelings of others. However the debate ends, that alone should be taken as a sign of increasing brotherhood between black and white Southerners. That is surely a good thing.