But as a political symbol, the flag was revived when northern Democrats began to press for an end to the South’s system of racial oppression. In 1948, the Dixiecrats revolted against President Harry Truman—who had desegregated the armed forces and supported anti-lynching bills. The movement began in Mississippi in February of 1948, with thousands of activists “shouting rebel yells and waving the Confederate flag,” as the Associated Press reported at the time. Some actually removed old, mothballed flags from the trunks where they had until then been gathering dust.
At the Democratic convention that July, nine southern states backed Georgia’s Senator Richard Russell over Truman, parading around the floor behind a waving Confederate flag to the strains of Dixie. The Dixiecrats reconvened in Birmingham, nominating South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for the presidency. Sales of Confederate flags, long moribund, exploded. Stores could not keep them in stock. The battle flag became the symbol of segregation.
The flag soon spread. It fluttered from the radio antennas of cars and motorcycles, festooned towels and trinkets, and was exhibited on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Some displayed it as a curiosity, a general symbol of rebellion against authority, or an emblem of regional pride. The United Daughters of the Confederacy were split on how to respond, some pleased to see young people showing interest, others calling the proliferation of flags a “desecration.” Newspapers tried to explain the craze, citing explanations from football fans to historically themed balls.
The black press did not find the phenomena quite so baffling. “In a large measure,” wrote the Chicago Defender in 1951, “the rebel craze is an ugly reaction to the remarkable progress of our group.” That was true in the North, as well as the South.
Over the next two decades, the flag was waved at Klan rallies, at White Citizens’ Council meetings, and by those committing horrifying acts of violence. And despite the growing range of its meanings in pop culture, as a political symbol, it offered little ambiguity.
Georgia inserted the battle flag into its state flag in 1956. Two years later, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the Confederate flag. And then, on the centennial of the day South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter came in 1961, it hoisted the battle flag above its Capitol.
It was a symbol of heritage—but that heritage was hateful. Two state delegations, in Charleston to mark that 1961 centennial, found themselves barred from the hotel where the ceremony was to take place because they included black members. President Kennedy had to issue an executive order moving the commemoration to the Charleston Navy Base. And when the centennial ended, the flag stayed, proclaiming that South Carolina might have lost the war, but that it was determined not to surrender its opposition to racial equality.