Conflicts over Confederate symbols persist in VA Senate campaign





The Confederate battle flag still stirs passions - reverence in some, fear and loathing in others. And it continues to intrude into politics, notably in U.S. Sen. George Allen's re-election campaign. Allen, R-Va., has been dogged by tales of how he wore a Confederate flag pin and hung the flag in his home and elsewhere in his earlier days. When Allen tried to distance himself last month from those Confederate sympathies, he was assailed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Why? Why, in 21st century America, does the relic of a short-lived, long-gone political entity still provoke such feelings? And who's right? Does it represent a noble defense of American liberties, or is it a banner of hatred and bigotry?

According to John Coski, that depends on when, where and whom you ask.

For 12 years Coski, historian and librarian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., researched the history of the battle flag, from the Civil War down to today's "flag flaps" over public displays of Confederate symbols. The research appears in his book, "The Confederate Battle Flag - America's Most Embattled Emblem," published last year.

The book was praised by reviewers and historians as a dispassionate, fact-based treatment of its emotion-charged subject, and it makes enlightening reading for those who care, pro or con, about the Confederacy's afterlife.

It's a complicated story, Coski relates: "There are so many perceptions of this symbol."

To different people at different times, it's been a memorial to revered ancestors, the mark of white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan, an all-purpose symbol of opposition to government, the emblem (affectionately or scornfully) of the redneck or good ol' boy, or simply a shorthand icon for the South in general and its sectional pride.

Or just a good-looking design, with its striking, star-spangled X. "This is a logo that any corporation would die for," Coski recalls artist Jim McElhinney saying at a museum symposium.

In a Sept. 12 speech, Allen said he had not appreciated when he was younger that the flag "was and is for black Americans an emblem of hate and terror."

"This is a good example of why we could use some background and perspective" about these symbols, Coski said.

Allen should have been already aware of the conflicts over Confederate imagery, Coski said.

It is possible, he said, that the younger Allen was simply responding to the flag's "good ol' boy" connotations.



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