A short walk from where President-elect Abraham Lincoln made the last train stop in his home state before leaving for Washington on the verge of the Civil War, a Confederate battle flag flies from a home garage.
The property belongs to former mayor Greg Cler, who runs a car repair shop in this central Illinois village of 3,500 people. Cler isn’t from the South. He grew up about five miles away, in Pesotum, where his father, like most others in the region, farmed corn and soy. But Cler has long felt an attachment to the flag.
“Part of it is an act of rebellion,” he said.
The other part is tied to the national turmoil surrounding race and identity. Cler sees the flag as a fitting symbol of white people’s shared grievances, which, he says, have new resonance today.
“I proudly fly it like I do the American flag,” he said, nodding to the two red, white and blue banners — representing opposing sides of the country’s bloodiest conflict — waving in synchrony above his head.
Perhaps the most contentious of American emblems, the Confederate flag is grounded in a history of slavery and segregation in the South. But despite recent moves to eradicate it from statehouses, vehicle license plates and store shelves, the banner has been embraced far from its founding region, still flying from spacious Victorian houses in New Jersey, above barns in Ohio and over music festivals in Oregon.
The Confederate flag’s appearance at Trump rallies in 2016, sometimes emblazoned with his name, cemented its link to his “Make America Great Again” brand of patriotism, which appealed to many disaffected white people. Some supporters say the country under President Barack Obama put the needs of minorities before theirs.
“It seemed like I wasn’t represented,” Cler said, while others “took advantage of the system.”
For people like him, the Confederate flag reflects 21st-century pride in a form of American identity that harks back to the scrappy self-sufficiency of the white settlers of Appalachia. To others, flying the flag for “white grievance” is simply racism by a different name, an effort to redefine patriotism as the interests of white Americans.
Many retailers say sales of the Confederate flag are strong, even increasing. Dewey Barber, who owns Georgia-based Dixie Outfitters, said the biggest change he has seen since launching the business — which sells flags and other goods bearing Confederate iconography — in 1997 is an increase in sales to the North and the West, from about 5 percent to 20 percent of his business.
The flag is sometimes merged with patriotic icons, including in hybrid flags that bind it physically to the Stars and Stripes.
“I think the patriotic mood of the country has kind of taken over,” said Barber, who is white, drawing little distinction between pride in symbols of the United States and the Confederacy. “We sell a lot more American things than we used to.”
But many Americans say a flag born of a proslavery cause cannot be divorced from its racist roots.
When a handful of students marked the end of the 2018 school year at a high school in Paxton, 35 miles north of Tolono, by driving into the parking lot in pickup trucks festooned with Trump imagery and Confederate flags, the backlash was immediate. For Angela Gerdes-Bigham, mother of one of the few biracial students at the school, the act reflected racial tensions that appeared to have heightened in the four years since her older child graduated from the same school.
“I think the political climate has changed,” Gerdes-Bigham said, worrying about a resurgence of segregationist sentiment. “It has a lot to do with our president, in my opinion,” she said.
Paige Stewart, who is black and lives in the nearby city of Champaign, described falling out with a white college friend who, during a conversation about the Confederate flag, refused to acknowledge how hurtful it could be.
Stewart, 29, said she doesn’t pay much attention to the flag when she sees it in majority-white small towns where she views it as representing a rural sensibility. But, she said, it is far more “aggressive” to fly the flag in an urban setting such as Champaign, which is 15 percent black. Worse still in Chicago. And she bridles at the reasons some people give for flying it.
“They see it as pride, as patriotism, and that’s where it becomes offensive,” Stewart said.
A white supremacist history
Historians wrestle with how a flag that stood for treason can be seen as patriotic. In the more than 150 years since it was adopted by the Confederacy, the battle flag has been redefined numerous times by the people who display it — at times worn as a symbol of youthful rebellion and at others wielded as a show of racial hatred.
The effort to pair it with displays of patriotism is met with resistance from those who note that Dixiecrats brandished the Confederate battle flag in opposition to the civil rights movement, and that neo-Nazis paraded it through Charlottesville last year.
“The flag can mean anything you want it to mean,” said Jarret Ruminski, author of “The Limits of Loyalty: Ordinary People in Civil War Mississippi” — often a poke in the eye of political correctness.
“But the history of the flag is very clear and unambiguously connected to white supremacy. That history is undeniable, whether people want to acknowledge it or not.”
In 2015, after Dylann Roof, a self-declared white supremacist who brandished a Confederate flag, slaughtered nine black members of a Charleston church, major retailers such as Walmart, Target and Amazon took Confederate goods off their shelves and websites. South Carolina’s then-governor, Nikki Haley (R), called for the flag’s removal from the statehouse grounds. Donald Trump, who had just declared his candidacy, concurred, saying: “I think they should put it in the museum. Let it go.”
Two years later, after deadly rioting in Charlottesville led to further calls for the removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces, President Trump appeared to change his tune, tweeting, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”
The cognitive dissonance created by using Confederate symbols as patriotic emblems is familiar to John Coski, author of “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem.” He has documented a “dual loyalty” among some Southerners who believe the “Confederacy had a positive effect — making the nation stronger” and thus view its flag in a benign light.
The language and logic of the Lost Cause, which sought to sanitize Southern culture after the Civil War and emphasize the hardships faced by whites, has returned, according to W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Most of it can be cut and pasted to the 21st century,” Brundage said, noting that Southern soldiers saw themselves as victims whose Protestant values were under attack in a way that is often echoed by evangelicals today.
Confederate imagery hasn’t always been vested with intense political feeling. The flag appeared on a car roof in the TV comedy series “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which ran from 1979 to 1985. Lynyrd Skynyrd, one of the progenitors of Southern rock, used the flag on album covers.
But it has often carried a racially charged message, said Barbara J. Fields, a professor of American history at Columbia University. “It was weaponized in the era of Jim Crow, the civil rights era and again recently” by far-right activists who rampaged through Charlottesville.
When it showed up at Trump rallies — in Kissimmee, Fla., in Pittsburgh, in West Bend, Wis. — it often mingled with the star-spangled banner and chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
“Given this political moment in which whiteness is central to political discourse, I don’t think it’s surprising that people would seize on the [Confederate] flag as a symbol,” said Edda Fields-Black, a historian at Carnegie Mellon University who has written widely about enslavement.
Finding a voice, flying a flag
The proprietor of Country Boys, a variety store in Clinton, Ill., said sales of flags as well as Confederate comforters and sheets with a Confederate theme have been strong in recent years, particularly around patriotic holidays such as July 4.
Each time public opinion has come out against the flag, sales have soared, according to Belinda Kennedy of Alabama Flag and Banner, who said two of her great-grandfathers fought for the South in the Civil War. After the Charleston church massacre in 2015, several of her suppliers stopped making Confederate flags, and her company started making its own to keep pace with demand. She thinks hers is now the only U.S.-based company that still sews Confederate flags.
“That particular year was insane,” Kennedy said. “We sold thousands and thousands of flags.” She said she also saw small upticks after Charlottesville and when Confederate monuments were taken down in cities such as Baltimore.
“People for some reason got the idea you weren’t going to be able to find one,” said Kerry McCoy, who runs the Arkansas-based Flag and Banner. “Sales to the North went up.”
McCoy said she had customers from all walks of life, including a grandfather from Rhode Island who said he wanted several Confederate flags to keep for his grandchildren.
Not only did sales rise for those companies, so did rallies in support of the Confederate flag, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which compiled a map of more than 300 such rallies in the months after the Charleston attack, from Florida to Michigan and Oregon.
“A very surprising proportion were in the North,” said Mark Potok, a former senior fellow with the legal advocacy nonprofit group, reflecting on the flag’s broad appeal.
Here in the Land of Lincoln, LaShawn K. Ford, a Democratic member of the Illinois House from Chicago, introduced legislation that would ban the display of Confederate symbols on public property.
Ford said he hoped his bill would pass this year and that he expected little pushback, except perhaps from people who tend city cemeteries where a few Confederate graves are marked with flags.
It is a different matter on private land.
Ray Cook, a Tolono resident, drove his Harley-Davidson motorcycle with a flag on the back to his job at the Tate & Lyle corn processing plant in Decatur, where he said he was asked to remove it or park off the property. Cook complied, later saying he would not deliberately offend anyone. But his feelings were mixed.
“Guess what? This is a free country,” Cook said. “You ought to be able to fly whatever flag you believe in.”
“Not everybody flies it in a racist manner,” said Brandon Carter, 24, one of the few black residents in his mobile home community, where a neighbor, Brent Lowe, celebrates the distinctive iconography with a Confederate flag billowing from the side of his trailer, a Confederate Smurf tattooed on his lower leg and “Hillbilly” inked into his back.
Carter says older generations of his family see the flag as inextricably tied to the legacy of slavery, but he has come to accept it as “a country thing.”
“I don’t see everybody as a horrible person because they fly the flag,” Carter said. “If we are friends, if I’m invited to your property, I don’t view it as a racist symbol.”
Lowe decried those who use the flag as a symbol of hate. “It doesn’t represent none of that for me,” he said.
Still, the nation’s heightened political tensions over race and identity play out here.
At the Traxside sports bar in Tolono, questions about the flag quickly turned to a discussion of the state’s demography, and how the large population center of liberal and diverse Chicago has long left many right-leaning rural whites feeling as if their votes didn’t count — as if they had no voice.
Until Trump came along, thundering their cause.
Not everyone airs those views in public by unfurling a Confederate banner.
Doug Dillavou runs an automotive repair shop across the road from Traxside, next door to Tolono’s tiny historical museum, where an almost life-size cutout of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Liberator, greets visitors.
You rarely see Confederate flags in town, Dillavou said. Which is not to say they don’t exist.
“There are those that have them in garages,” he said. “They put ’em away. They don’t want to be marked as racists, whether they are or not.”