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Flags should go, but racist hatred will remain

After decades of controversy, it took one racist young man with a handgun to galvanize public opinion around that ubiquitous symbol of misplaced Southern identity, the Confederate battle flag.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, reeling in the aftermath of the massacre of nine worshipers at a historic black church in Charleston, on Monday called on her state's Legislature to stop flying the Confederate flag on the state Capitol grounds.

The nation's largest retailer, Walmart, suddenly saw fit to declare it would no longer sell Confederate-flag merchandise. Sears, Target and eBay followed suit, and then Amazon, after flag sales skyrocketed.

Even Oregon has been swept up in the anti-flag frenzy. How, you ask?

In Wilson Park, just outside the state Capitol building in Salem, is an outdoor display of the flags of all 50 states. The Mississippi state flag is the last one in the country to include the Confederate battle flag in its design.

State Rep. Tobias Read, D-Beaverton, has called for the Mississippi flag to be taken down and replaced with that state's first official state flag, the "Magnolia Flag," used from 1861 to 1894.

There's just one problem with that idea. Well, more than one.

For starters, it makes little sense to single out Mississippi for shaming by removing its flag when several other Southern states' flags incorporate elements of Confederate imagery, while stopping short of the familiar blue X with white stars on a field of red.

The Confederacy adopted a succession of flags as the Civil War progressed. The battle flag familiar to most Americans, and the one still flying in Charleston, S.C., was never the official symbol of the Confederacy. It was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Some of the official national flags of the Confederacy included that battle flag design, but in the upper left corner on a field of white, or, later, white with a vertical red stripe.

The state flags of Alabama and Florida use a red Cross of St. Andrew, and historical documents make it clear that design was intended to preserve some symbol of the Confederacy. The Arkansas flag includes white stars on a blue diamond against a red background, an unmistakable nod to the battle flag. 

Most problematic in Rep. Read's proposal is that the "Magnolia Flag" incorporates a solid blue square with a single white star. That symbol echoes the "Bonnie Blue Flag" that flew over the Confederate batteries that opened fire on Fort Sumter to start the Civil War.

You can denounce Confederate symbolism, but it would seem you cannot escape it — at least in the South.

If the Mississippi flag should be changed — and it should — Mississippi ought to do it, not the Oregon Legislature. Already, there are calls in that state to remove the offending Confederate imagery. If our legislators feel compelled to weigh in on Mississippi's flag, they should send a letter encouraging that change. But a display of the nation's state flags should include all the nation's state flags.

Meanwhile, no one should imagine that the racist hatred that prompted a dead-eyed 21-year-old to slaughter innocent worshipers will disappear just because a symbol of slavery and oppression is removed from government property. The stain of that massacre cannot be wiped away so easily.