From Heather Cox Richardson writing at Salon.com:
The fight over the Confederate battle flag may change the course of a generation of American politics. The flag is not simply about race. It is about the nature of the American government. These two fundamental American issues cannot be separated today any more than they could 150 years ago. Does the federal government have the power to promote the good of all Americans, as Abraham Lincoln insisted? Or is the nation, in fact, a loose confederation of states that can do as they wish, without worrying about treating everyone equally?
Americans answered this question in 1865 with the blood of 700,000 men and $5 billion in treasure. But the question arose again when federal courts in the 1950s demanded desegregation. It is time to resolve it, once and for all.
The history of the flag sheds important light on the fight over it. The flag at the heart of today’s struggle is not the official Confederate standard. It is a piece of the battle flag of Gen. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and it came to represent the South primarily during Reconstruction. In the wake of the war, with slavery gone beyond recall, white Southerners tried to maintain white supremacy by controlling the government. They passed laws designed to keep African-Americans in a system as close to slavery as the 13th Amendment would allow. Among other things, they barred African-Americans from testifying in court or sitting on juries, guaranteeing that they had no legal recourse against whites who cheated, attacked or murdered them. To establish equality in the South, federal officers from the Freedmen’s Bureau stepped in and heard disputes between ex-slaves and white Southerners. When the officers decided in favor of former slaves about 68 percent of the time, white Southerners howled about dangerous government overreach.