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Joe Conason: Never Patriotic — The Real Meaning of the Confederate Flag

In the intensifying debate over the Confederate flag, important clues about the true meaning of this seditious symbol are staring us in the face. Dozens of those clues were posted by an angry, glaring Dylann Storm Roof on the "Last Rhodesian" website, where the confessed Charleston killer pays homage to certain flags — notably those of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, as well as the old Confederacy — while he enthusiastically desecrates another.

Pictures of Roof burning, stomping and spitting on the Stars and Stripes are interspersed among the photos of him grasping and waving the Confederate battle flag, sometimes while holding a gun.

"I hate the sight of the American flag," he raged in a long screed on the site. "Modern American patriotism is an absolute joke."

What this racial terrorist meant to express, in crude prose and pictures, is a lesson that the diehard defenders of the Confederate flag should no longer ignore: to uphold the banner of secession is to reject patriotism — and has never meant anything else.

For many years after the Civil War, the symbols of the Confederacy were not much seen outside local museums and burial grounds. The late Gen. Robert E. Lee, a reluctant but revered Confederate hero, rejected any post-war fetishizing of the Stars and Bars, which had actually originated as the battle flag of his Army of Northern Virginia. Lee believed it "wiser ... not to keep open the sores of war."

But such admonishments were cast aside by the exponents of white supremacy, whose own patriotism was certainly suspect. When the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camellia were revived as racial terror organizations in the 1930s and 1940s, carrying out a spree of cowardly lynchings, their grand wizards found natural allies among the leaders of the German-American Bund — whose funding and fealty were eventually traced to Nazi headquarters in Berlin. Indeed, the Klansmen burned their towering crosses alongside swastika banners at rallies sponsored by the Bund to attack President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In the years following the Second World War, the Dixiecrats — led by South Carolina politician Strom Thurmond and the "uptown Klan" known as the White Citizens Councils that supported Thurmond's movement — appropriated the Confederate flag as their own standard. Among its greatest enthusiasts was a young radio reporter (and future U.S. senator) named Jesse Helms, whose fawning coverage of Thurmond's 1948 third-party presidential bid marked him as a rising star of the segregationist right.

As for the White Citizens Councils, those local groups were ultimately reconstituted into chapters of the Council of Conservative Citizens — a notorious hate group that has embarrassed many Republican politicians caught fraternizing with its leaders, and that ultimately inspired Roof with its inflammatory propaganda about black crime and the endangered white race. Headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., the CCC festoons itself and its works with the Dixie flag, as does the neo-Confederate League of the South, which still openly advocates secession.

Meanwhile, racist, anti-Semitic agitators such as David Duke and Don Black — both Southerners prominent in Klan and neo-Nazi organizations for decades — have never ceased to manifest their reverence for the Confederacy. Stormfront, the notorious neo-Nazi website founded by Black, continues to promote the mythology and symbolism of the Southern cause, declaring in a June 23 podcast that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery — and that "the attack on southern symbols and heritage such as the Confederate Flag are actually part of an overall Jewish-led attack on European Americans."

Owing to Duke's influence, in fact, the Confederate flag has long served as a substitute for Nazi banners in demonstrations, often violent, by "white nationalists" in Europe — where the symbols of the Third Reich are widely outlawed.

Obviously, not every American who has displayed the Dixie flag endorses the treason and bigotry that it now represents to so many other Americans. There are sincere patriots, like former Senator James Webb of Virginia, who insist that it is only a remembrance of the valor of their ancestors. But over the decades, its appropriation by traitors and bigots has provoked little noticeable protest from the more innocent exponents of "respect" for Southern heritage.

Today, the Charleston massacre has left it standing irrevocably for the most brutal and criminal aspects of that heritage — and it is more deeply irreconcilable with American patriotism than ever.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JoeConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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