Charleston church shooting reignites decades-old controversy over Confederate flag

The Charleston church massacre has reignited an old national debate about the rebel flag and other icons of the Confederacy, which some see as symbols of their Southern heritage and others see as painful reminders of America's darkest chapter.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called Monday for the removal of the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds but defended the right of private citizens to fly it, five days after after a white gunman opened fire on a historically black church -- killing nine people in what he had hoped would trigger a "race war," according to authorities.

"That flag, while an integral part of the past, does not represent the future of our great state," Haley told reporters Monday.

The push to remove the Confederate flag, which is publicly displayed in cities across the South -- from Richmond to Charleston -- has stirred a decades-old debate between those who see it a symbol of slavery and white supremacy and those who consider it a symbol of their Southern heritage.

"The Confederate flag has a destructive, very violent cultural narrative attached to it."

— Rollins College professor Julian Chambliss

To Julian Chambliss, a professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., the flag carries only one meaning: slavery.

"The Confederate flag has an important place in the museum and will always be a part of the history books but there's a real question about it as an emblem of contemporary society," Chambliss told Tuesday.

"It stands for repression and regression and should not be a symbol of civil society," he said. "The Confederate flag has a destructive, very violent cultural narrative attached to it."

Chambliss said to characterize the flag in any other way is a "misrepresentation."

"What heritage is it about exactly? Is it about a heritage associated with supporting the slave system?" said Chambliss. "The war was about slavery."

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, meanwhile, is staunchly opposed to the removal of the flag from South Carolina state grounds and said it plans to vigorously fight any efforts to take it down. The group said it was horrified at last week's shooting but there is "absolutely no link" between the mass murders and the flag.

The onetime Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., features several monuments to the South's Civil War leaders, including this one depicting Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. (AP)

The onetime Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., features several monuments to the South's Civil War leaders, including this one depicting Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. (AP)

Alleged gunman 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who posted photos of himself with the Confederate flag in hand, reportedly yelled racist comments before opening fire on an all-black Bible Study group at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston Wednesday night. Authorities said he later confessed to the shooting, saying he intended to start a "race war."

"It’s unfortunate that hate groups and hateful people have used our flag," said Michael Givens, former commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which claims to have 30,000 members nationwide.

Givens told he has several ancestors who fought in the Civil War and the flag is meant to salute their bravery -- not to support slavery or any racist ideology.

"Many people look at it only as a symbol to honor their ancestors -- to honor the the people who were willing to sacrifice everything they have to protect their families and their homes from an invasion," said Givens.

"We’re in the middle of something that was started by this heinous, unbelievably vitriolic person who killed nine innocent people," he said of the renewed flag controversy.

"I should have a right to display the flag without being maligned by some people who insist that I’m a racist for doing so," he said. "You have to look at people’s intention. It’s not my intention to have anything to do with hatred."

Confederate symbols, including the flag, are pervasive throughout the South -- from Monument Avenue in Richmond, which features monuments of five Confederate leaders, to Georgia, where the state flag still bears Confederacy emblems. And online sales of the flag are reportedly surging, even though Amazon, eBay, Walmart and Sears all stopped selling the so-called "Stars and Bars."

"They are less ubiquitous than they once were but they're still very prevalent and they've taken on different meanings over time," said Adam Domby, who holds a doctorate in Civil War history from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

While the flag may carry several meanings -- from slavery to states' rights to Southern heritage -- Domby said one matter is indisputable: its origin.

"The Declaration of Secession of South Carolina said, "We want to leave the Union because of X, Y and Z. When you look at what X, Y and Z are, every one of them links back to slavery in some way," Domby told

"Individuals fought in the (Civil) war for different reasons but they were all fighting to maintain a way of life that was based upon a slave economy," he said. "That's what the flag meant in 1862."

"Part of the problem is a disjuncture between what caused the war and what individuals want to honor," he added. "Groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans want to honor their ancestors but their ancestors were human and like all humans were flawed."

"Yes they may have fought gallantly for their state but they fought gallantly for a cause that was quite different than that which the United States was founded upon – that great truth that all men were created equal," he said. "If they want to fly that flag at their house, that’s one thing. But when you’re flying it at the state Capitol it sends a message to a lot of people that 'You’re not welcome here.'"