Confederate flag a controversial symbol

NEW YORK - It is a symbol of honour for some, but of racial hatred for others.

The Confederate battle flag is seen widely across the southern states that seceded and were defeated in the American Civil War fought from 1861 to 1865. Yet, the X-shape blue "saltire" with 13 white stars representing the states in the alliance, against a red background, is a Confederate military flag that was never the official flag of the secessionist states.

The banner became a symbol, to some, of the South at war, of the army of General Robert E. Lee and the "lost cause" after defeat, and of the heroism of white southerners - while overlooking the slave system on which the South was built. Its racist connotations were underscored when it was embraced by the racist and violent Ku Klux Klan and some pro-segregationists.

Also carrying racist connotations is the word "nigger", used by President Barack Obama on Monday to emphasise enduring racism. Evoking images of lynchings, oppression, bigotry and discrimination, it has its origins in the Latin "niger" (black). By 1900, it was a pejorative term and, by 1960, it was commonly replaced by the word "black".

Mr Obama is not the first US president to use the word. In Nigger: The Strange Career Of A Troublesome Word, author Randall Kennedy names former presidents Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman as using the word.

Mr Nixon was caught on White House tapes referring to blacks as "niggers". Mr Johnson pushed through landmark civil rights laws, but a biographer said he nominated jurist Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court rather than a lesser-known black candidate, because "when I appoint a 'nigger' to the bench, I want everybody to know he's a 'nigger'".

REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2015, with the headline 'Confederate flag a controversial symbol'. Print Edition | Subscribe