University of Memphis Historian says Confederate flag has always been divisive

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MEMPHIS, Tenn--The Confederate flag. It is a symbol that has divided Americans for more than a century and a half.

Dr. Aram Goudsouzian is professor and chair of the University of Memphis History Department.

"The Confederate flag has always meant two different things to two different groups. It has reflected to many southern whites the symbol of heritage and pride and to many African-Americans a symbol of oppression," Dr. Goudsouzian said.

Originally designed at the start of the Civil War, the battle flag was first raised by the Confederate army of northern Virginia.  After the war, the battle flag and other "stars and bars" standards,

"In the 1800s and early 1900s, you start to see it pop up again as that generation of Confederate soldiers was dying out and as many in southern towns were memorializing southern soldiers," Dr. Goudsouzian said.

But historians say the flag later became a symbol of segregation with Jim Crow laws around the turn of the century.

"That was occurring the same time the of the Jim Crow System, the system was being put into place in the south, the system that stripped blacks of the right to vote through a variety of legal means and new forms of racial violence," Dr. Goudsouzian said.

Dr. Lasimba Gray is a Civil Rights activist, a Shelby County Historic Board member, and pastor at New Sardis Baptist Church.

He was in Detroit today, but told WREG by phone racial segregation led to violence under the Confederate flag banner.

"The many acts that were conducted under that flag, the lynchings, the mob actions. It's painful. It's always been in the hearts of mind of African-American people," Dr. Gray said.

The Confederate flag entered national politics in 1948, when it was adopted by a splinter group of southern Democrats, calling themselves "Dixiecrats" and opposing civil rights.

"This led to the Dixiecrats and their new presidential candidate Strom Thurmond to break off from the Democratic Party and form their own party they called the State's Rights Party. Their rallies, confederate battle flags and a romanticization of the confederate past and it was linked to their resistance of civil rights," Dr. Goudsouzian said.

Decades later, the confederate flag, which is tied to white supremacist groups and the recent Charleston church shooting suspect Dylan Roof is forcing a new debate and conversation many say is long overdue.

"The Charleston, South Carolina incident brings it to head the power and the negative impact of this flag. No is the time to remove it." Dr. Gray said.

"It's terrible that a tragedy had to bring out this political conversation but it is a good political conversation to have though," Dr. Goudsouzian said.

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