The distinctive configuration of white stars mounted on a blue “X” and set against a field of red is now widely known as the Confederate flag. But it was originally the battle flag of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
The banner has become more popular than the Confederacy’s first official flag, the Stars and Bars, which resembled the Union’s Stars and Stripes with three red and white stripes bordering a blue square with seven white stars.
In 1863, the battle flag was officially recognized by the Confederate Congress, turning it into a political symbol, as it has been ever since.
But John Coski, a historian at the American Civil War Museum, who documented the banner’s divisive history in his 2005 book, “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem,” warns against simplifying what it stands for.
Over the past century and a half, he writes, the battle standard has evolved into “a widely and carelessly used symbol of many things, including the South as a distinctive region, individual rebelliousness, a self conscious ’redneck’ culture, and segregation and racism.”
These are several key periods in the flag’s divisive history:
Post-Civil war: For decades after the war, the flag was used largely by veterans’ groups at parades and as a symbol of Southern heritage.
1940s The flag appears at Southern college and university football games and some other cultural events that were not directly related to the war.
1948 A new political party — the Dixiecrats or States Rights Democrats, founded in oppostion to President Harry Truman who had desegregated the military — adopts the flag as a symbol of resistance to federal oversight. The party, led by Strom Thurmond, had a distinctly racist message.“We stand for the segregation of the races,” its platform said.
Early ’50s, The flag enters American popular culture outside the South, attracting the attention of the national media, as a symbol of rejection, rebellion and youthful hijinks.
“Everywhere along the Atlantic seaboard from New York to Miami and westward to the Mississippi watershed pert little banners wave in the breeze from car antennae, souvenir stands, bicycles or in the hands of youngsters, teenagers and grownups,” wrote the New York Times.
1956 After the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional, Georgia changed its state flag to incorporate the battle flag.
1961 On the centennial of the Civil War’s beginning, South Carolina hoisted the flag above its Capitol.
1963 The flag was raised over the Alabama Capitol when Robert Kennedy visited to speak over issues such as desegregation with then-Governor George Wallace, further cementing its link with opposition to Civil Rights.
1965 Civil rights opponents heckled the men and women who marched from Selma to Montgomery, some taunting them with Confederate flags.
Late 70s and early ‘80s The flag resonated with defenders of Southern “hillbilly” or “redneck” culture. In the CBS series, “Dukes of Hazzard,” it appeared on the roof of a Dodge Charger named “The General Lee.” Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd displayed in on album covers. It was stamped on shot glasses and T shirts, and it adorned bikinis on California beaches.
Early 90s The flag showed up in the Baltic states following their liberation from Soviet rule — one of many places where the flag has won a following: Brazilian descendants of Confederate veterans celebrate their U.S. ancestry at an annual Festa Confederada; in Sweden, it is flaunted as an example of American kitsch; and in Germany, where the swastika is banned, some neo-Nazis rally instead around the Confederate flag.
2000 The state legislature of South Carolina took the flag down from the Capitol and raised it instead on the statehouse grounds at the existing Confederate monument. The NAACP began a 15-year boycott of the state.
2015 After white supremacist Dylann Roof slaughtered nine members of a Charleston church, online images of him emerge touting a Confederate flag. Amazon, Walmart and other major retailers remove Confederate goods from stores and websites. Then-governor Nikki Haley calls for its removal from the statehouse grounds.
2017 White nationalists parade the Confederate flag through Charlottesville in riots that lead to the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer.
Recently, as political pressure has increased to remove the flag from public property, it has been flown in defiance on private property — from giant flagpoles along interstate highways and a private park bordering a public cemetery in Southern Maryland.