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Americas

More than a piece of cloth: the Confederate flag

The fight over the Confederate flag symbolizes the key issue of the US presidential election: How populist do politicians need to be to inherit the presidency from Barack Obama? Ines Pohl reports from Mississippi.

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Mississippi: Fighting over Confederate flag

Jim Huffmann (above) trades his jeans for a pair of white linen pants at least twice a month when he and a group of men reenact scenes from the American Civil War. When that happens, the jovial man with the fuzzy beard buttons up the red coat that stretches over his belly, and enters another place in time to become a member of the "7 Stars Artillery," whose cannons are loaded with real gunpowder. "I was never really that interested in my family history before," says the former German teacher from Picayune, a small-town outside Biloxi, Mississippi. "Perhaps I was like a lot of Germans: One doesn't want to know too much about 'bad' things." Here in the South, most "bad" things have to do with slavery.

He says that at some point he visited a cemetery where a lot of his ancestors are buried. "It was there that I realized just how many of my forebears died in the Civil War. And then I started reading history books." Suddenly he exclaims, in very pedantic fashion, just how important it is to read the "right" books, namely those written by southerners. "We all know that there are always different ways to interpret things."

Fight over minority rights

Confederate flags, which exist in many different versions, play a central role in reenactments of Civil War battles. "For me the flag represents family, history and home." The retired teacher considers himself to be left-leaning - and wants Hillary Clinton to be his president.

Südstaaten-Flagge wird von Regierungssitz entfernt

The Confederate flag still flies in Mississippi

He sees no contradiction between his political orientation and his fight to keep the Confederate flag flying over government buildings and public spaces throughout Mississippi. He says that slaves were not brought to America under the Confederate flag, but rather under the Stars and Stripes, "and no one is talking about outlawing that flag."

Huffmann talks a lot about "us" and "them," but he doesn't mean blacks and whites when he says it. He is referring to those people in far-off Washington, D.C. "They don't understand that this flag is part of our history, that it gives us a feeling of inclusion and of home." He says that his fight to help Hillary would be much easier if people were not also trying to take away the Confederate flag. "If that happens, it will end badly. Then they will come take away everything else we have left."

The former teacher refuses to accept the feelings that black citizens express when they talk about the flag. About the fact that the flag under which their ancestors were humiliated, lynched and abused flies above the schools that their own children now attend. Huffmann asks, "Why should the feelings of a minority be more important than ours?"

A fluttering projection surface

"It's not allowed to fly a flag with a swastika on it in Germany, is it?" For months, Carlos E. Moore has been living and working for one thing: To see that the flag, under which the southern states fought to uphold slavery, is finally banished from Mississippi. At least as far as official buildings are concerned.

USA South Carolina holt Südstaaten-Flagge ein

South Carolina took down the flag after a racist killing spree in Charleston

"Is it true that German citizens are not allowed to fly a flag with a swastika on their own private property? That could never happen here because of the right to freedom of speech."

Moore is a lawyer. He lives in Grenada, Mississippi. It is the last state in the USA in which the flag still waves over post offices, schools and police stations. For him and many other African-Americans it remains a symbol of slavery. "Even if we have racial equality on paper, we will still be degraded as second-class citizens as long as the flag exists. That is unacceptable."

Beginning in the 17th century, millions of men and women were abducted in Africa and brought to America where they were enslaved for the next 200 years. Hundreds of thousands died on the journey or later under brutal working conditions in the fields. They were beaten, raped and tortured. "This flag is an assault," says Moore.

'Let's make America white again'

Until the middle of last year the Confederate flag flew above public buildings in South Carolina, too. However, laws were changed in the wake of a racially motivated massacre that killed nine black citizens in Charleston. Before the attack, the killer posted photos of himself posing with the flag online. There was simply no way to avoid the issue.

USA Carlos E. Moore in Grenada

Moore: 'we will be degraded as long as the flag exists'

A few days ago, Donald Trump won that state's Republican primary. In an anonymous poll, 38 percent of voters said that they wished the South had won the Civil War despite what that would have meant for racial equality. Trump is the candidate of choice among white Christians, one who never shies from taking clear stances against Muslims, Mexicans and Chinese.

The fight over the Confederate flag brings a central theme of the upcoming US election to a head: How white should the United States' government become when the Obama years come to an end? That is exactly what Donald Trump is talking about when he says that he wants to "make America great again." November's results will tell us just how populist politicians can and must be in 2016 if they want to be elected president of the United States of America.

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