The Confederate flag flying outside of South Carolina’s statehouse has sparked debate across the nation following the brutal shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
At the center of much of the fervor is what the flag stands for.
For some, the flag is a symbol for a shared Southern heritage. For others, the flag is linked to the Confederate War Memorial, which sits next to it and honors fallen Confederate soldiers.
And yet others, such as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, see the flag as a symbol for racial oppression and prejudice.
"Do you know when that flag was first flown at the Columbia statehouse in Columbia?" he asked during an interview on Meet the Press June 21. "1961 … it was a middle finger directed at the federal government. It was flown there as a symbol of massive resistance to racial desegregation. Period."
"It was only after Brown vs. Board, after Little Rock, after desegregation began, that South Carolinians put up the flag on the statehouse, that other states in the South adopted the battle flag as part of their state flags," Robinson said. "So it was massive resistance."
Here we wanted to to answer two questions. One is simple, when did the Confederate battle flag first fly above the South Carolina statehouse? And second, why?
The first time it flew
Daniel Hollis, a member of the commission responsible for planning South Carolina’s Confederate War Centennial, recalled the exact day the flag was first hoisted during an interview published in 1999.
Hollis said the flag itself went up on April 11, 1961, for the opening of the Civil War centennial "at the request of Aiken Rep. John A. May."
"May told us he was going to introduce a resolution to fly the flag for a year from the capitol. I was against the flag going up," Hollis said, "but I kept quiet and went along."
The resolution was approved in 1962, but never included a date for the flag’s removal.
"It just stayed up," Hollis said. "Nobody raised a question."
Hollis died in 2008.
The flag’s changing meaning
So, yes, the flag didn’t start flying until 100 years after the start of the Civil War. But why the flag was flown is -- like the flag itself -- subject to some debate.
Robinson cited a study conducted by the state Senate of Georgia to help make his case.
Although the study focuses on the history and evolution of Georgia’s state flag, it also explores the different Confederate flags that have existed and how those flags have been used by states.
The study pays special attention to what the different flags mean. "It must be understood how the meaning of the battle flag has changed since the Civil War and explore what it meant at the time Georgia and other states adopted it or paid homage to it," the report reads.
The study says that "from the end of the Civil War until the late 1940s, display of the battle flag was mostly limited to Confederate commemorations, Civil War re-enactments, and veterans’ parades. The flag had simply become a tribute to Confederate veterans."
However, in 1948, the meaning of the flag began to change.
That year, Dixiecrats flew the flag at their convention in Birmingham, Ala., as "a symbol of Southern protest and resistance to the federal government."
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board that segregation in education was unconstitutional. Georgia changed its state flag to embody the Confederate battle flag two years later.
The period also saw Rosa Parks refuse to give up her seat on the bus (1955), the forced integration at Little Rock, Ark. (1957), and student sit-ins across the South (1960).
We asked K. Michael Prince, author of Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys: South Carolina and the Confederate Flag, if he could pinpoint the root cause behind the raising of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina.
"As far as I've been able to determine, the bare facts … provide no clear evidence either way," Prince said.
"It's possible that nobody had anything else in mind other than commemorating the war. But we would be remiss not to take the larger context into consideration in judging the meaning of the display," Prince said.
Specifically, Prince cites arguments that broke out between a New Jersey centennial delegation and South Carolina. The National Civil War Centennial Commission meeting was to be held at a segregated hotel in Charleston, and a black delegate from New Jersey was denied admittance. New Jersey threatened to boycott all Charleston events in response.
Eventually, a compromise was reached through the efforts of President John F. Kennedy. The meeting was moved to Charleston Naval Base where segregation was not in effect.
"The official opening of the Civil War Centennial became a divided event, with dual headquarters and dual programs," Prince wrote in his book. "Except for a few luncheon speeches and the events held at Fort Sumter, centennial function followed separate (but equal) tracks."
The dispute between New Jersey and South Carolina would go on to become the "Number 1 Story of the Year" in South Carolina’s Sumter Daily Item.
Robinson stated that when the Confederate flag was first flown over South Carolina’s statehouse in 1961, and it was hoisted as a symbol of "massive resistance to racial desegregation."
Robinson is right on the date. The flag first flew over the statehouse to mark the opening ceremonies of a Civil War Centennial celebration.
Whether it was raised as a deliberate symbol of a "resistance to racial desegregation" is not completely clear. Experts and research find a circumstantial link between the spread of the flag and the racial divisions of the 1950s and 1960s.
We rate Robinson’s claim Mostly True.