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Southern Illinois, generally speaking, is torn between the influences to the North and South, sometimes eager for forward growth but often still clinging to its troubled past. 

In that context, it’s of little surprise that the Confederate flag, while not seen hoisted above government buildings, regularly waves for passersby from private property along rural routes in Southern Illinois and is proudly stamped on the back of many pickup truck windows as a loud-and-proud symbol of a rebel cause.

The Civil War that broke out more than 150 years ago was rooted in protecting a way of life and -- while often described by some as primarily being about states’ rights and defense against invasion by more liberal northern neighbors -- was, at the core, a fight over slavery in America.

The Confederate flag was one of several used to rally troops in the South as battles raged. It re-emerged as a popular symbol in many Southern states in the 1960s during the Civil Rights era as a protest to the movement for black equality.

After all these years, a tragic, racially motivated event in the Deep South has put the flag – and what it symbolizes – back on display in America’s conscience.

“It shows that while the Civil War ended 150 years ago officially, it’s still with us today in many, many ways, including here in Southern Illinois,” said Mike Jones, director at the General John A. Logan Museum, based in Murphysboro.

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The Confederate flag was ceremoniously removed from the Statehouse grounds on Friday morning in Columbia, South Carolina, following the June 17 murder of nine African-Americans, as they worshiped in a historical black church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.

Debate has since dramatically ensued about whether the Confederate flag symbolizes “heritage” or “hate” but more and more political leaders are taking stands against flying the unofficial flag of the Southern cause on government property, including on or near Capitol buildings, incorporated as part of a state flag, or in national cemeteries such as the one in Alexander County.

When the Civil War broke out more than 150 years ago, Southern Illinoisans overwhelmingly went to fight in Union armies, and did so in proportionally greater numbers than many from more northern Illinois counties, Jones said.

Only a few joined Confederate armies, including about 35 men from Carbondale and Marion who went to Tennessee and joined an infantry that became known as the Illinois Rebels.

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But cultural influences in this region, situated near Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi, tend to sway more to the ways of the South than the North in attitudes, political beliefs and social behaviors. Southern Illinois is not the same as Mississippi, but that state can be reached much more quickly from Marion than can Chicago.

“It’s in our DNA,” Jones said. “It’s definitely in mine. It’s hard to pin these things down … but there’s romanticism about the South. When I was young, I had a Confederate flag in my bedroom that I bought at Gettysburg. I didn’t attach any feeling to that; I just thought it was cool. Maybe it’s that ‘loser’ thing.”

Jones added: “Now I’m an avid Union guy. I strongly believe the Civil War was about slavery.”

In recent times, the Confederate flag has shown up in prominent places in Southern Illinois. For example, three large Confederate flags displayed on a vendor’s tent in front of City Hall were one of the first sights greeting visitors to this May’s popular Old King Coal Festival, in West Frankfort.

A vendor at the partially city-sponsored event that celebrates Franklin County’s deep coal industry roots was stationed there selling items that included the rebel flag, said Marcia Raubach, a festival committee member.

Raubach said she didn’t hear from anyone concerned about the display of the flags, and noted that event was weeks before nine people were killed in South Carolina and the debate took on new urgency.

Raubach said the vendor’s prominent display of the flags at the festival is something she plans to bring up at the next Old King Coal committee meeting.

“It may be something we want to rethink,” she said. “That wasn’t unusual (to see Confederate flags in various places in Southern Illinois) until this was really brought to the forefront.”

Meanwhile, federal lawmakers have continued to debate on Capitol Hill whether to allow the Confederate flag to be flown at national cemeteries. Every Memorial Day – in a Saturday ceremony prior to the Monday holiday – dignitaries and historians gather at Mound City National Cemetery to honor the war dead. A spokesman for Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, who represents that area, said the Confederate flag should stay out of national cemeteries. 

That would put a damper on the smaller, less official Confederate ceremony that follows and that is sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Dozens of Confederate soldiers are buried there, said Gale Red, of O’Fallon, and commander of the Illinois chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Confederate flags fly on the cemetery property that day from flagstaffs. 

A retired Air Force veteran, Red said the Confederate flag is about heritage for him: some of his ancestors fought and died trying to protect their homes in the South. He doesn’t deny that the Civil War was fought over slavery, but said the young men who joined the battle were more interested in protecting their home front from invading forces more than advancing the continued oppression of African-Americans.

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Many people still proudly display the flag, he said, “because that’s indeed their heritage and they feel pride in that heritage.” Red said there are some – though he concluded only a small minority of rebel flag wavers – who identify as a “rebellious group” and can’t personally identify a familial lineage to the Confederacy.

“We view that as a misuse of the symbol,” he said. His organization provides a $1,000 scholarship every year to a college-bound Illinois high school student who can show via historical records his or her relationship to a Confederate soldier. There is a similar female-led group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

“They have a right to be offended,” Red said of blacks and others who view the flag as a symbol of racism. “We’re not taking away their right to be offended. We can be offended at a lot of things, too.

“But we don’t have a right to shut everybody up just because we are offended.”

Joseph Brown, an SIU professor of Africana Studies, Catholic priest and member of Carbondale’s Human Relations Commission, said any arguments about the flag representing “heritage” are thinly veiled. It’s about slavery, and about racism, and about the oppression of an entire race – end of story, he said.

“It’s become almost a cliché to say you’re entitled to your own opinion,” Brown said. “But you’re not entitled to your own facts.” He noted that most flags weren’t hoisted over Southern government buildings until the Civil Rights movement, and in protest.

Brown added: “If that’s what you want to say is your heritage, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

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Molly.Parker@TheSouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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