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Confederate Flag Debate Symbolizes Rapid Change In The South

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're joined now by William Ferris. He's a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South. He has spent a lot of time thinking about Southern culture and how the Confederate flag and other symbols of the Confederacy fit into that culture.

Welcome to the program, professor Ferris.

WILLIAM FERRIS: It's a pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: There have been debates for generations about the Confederate flag, but changes are happening now with calls for the flag to be removed from public buildings. Today, eBay said it would stop allowing merchandise on its site that bares the Confederate flag. How do you see this moment?

FERRIS: I think this is a watershed moment. We have, for generations, been trying to be more inclusive of the word Southern. And a symbol like the confederate flag indicates white only are allowed into that world. And removing the Confederate flag from public view to the pages of history is long overdue.

MARTIN: South Carolina has been the focus of this conversation for the last few days, but Mississippi also incorporates the Confederate flag design into its official state flag. But there are lots of states in the American South that do not use public representations of the Confederate flag. Clearly, states have managed their history and this particular symbol in different ways. How much of that has to do with a state's particular economic history and its ties to slavery?

FERRIS: Well, I think the ties to slavery and the terrible tragedy that followed the Civil War with Jim Crow and racial violence, which sadly continues today, is closely linked to the Confederate flag. But when we look at the South, the South is a very diverse place with black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Lebanese, Jewish. It's a rich range of cultural voices that need to be embraced in the most public way. And the use of the Confederate flag is the wrong signal. It throws us back into a dark day that we are trying to move beyond.

MARTIN: Why has it taken so long? If you're saying that the identity of the South is this multicultural kind of inclusive culture, what have people seen in that flag that they have so dearly wanted to hold onto?

FERRIS: Well, there is a mythic view of the South that's symbolized by the film "Gone With The Wind" that looks back fondly at slavery as a time when everything was happily in place - in place for whites. When we say the South lost the Civil War, we mean the white South. The blacks were liberated. And it's trying to redefine this Southern myth and bring it in a more positive direction.

MARTIN: What does it mean, in your opinion, to be a proud Southerner in this moment? What encompasses that identity today?

FERRIS: Well, I think a proud Southerner is a Southerner who is aware of his or her past, and being proud of one's past does not mean you accept it. It means that you realize that we've come through the fire, and we're headed in another direction.

MARTIN: Do you think this symbol, though, this symbolic change of drawing down these Confederate flags, does it accurately represent a shift that's happening in the culture?

FERRIS: Yes. I think the South is changing rapidly, more rapidly than we know. The rapid growth of Hispanic families and of Asians and others represents an entirely new person within the South. And I think that this transition is part of the South. It's also part of America. And this is a change in which we're learning to be more open and more embracing of each other. And again, the lowering of the Confederate flag and putting it into a drawer or on a history book page is a part of that change, a welcome part of it.

MARTIN: William Ferris is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thank you so much for talking with us.

FERRIS: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.