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Wednesday, November 3, 1999 Published at 12:42 GMT

World: Americas

Confederate 'swastika' under attack

South Carolina still flies the Confederate battle flag, the red flag on the right.

By the BBC's Rob Watson in South Carolina

The state of South Carolina is facing a tourism boycott by American blacks.

America's largest black rights group, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured people or the NAACP, has called for the boycott to protest against the state's continued flying of the Confederate flag, which was used by the South in the American Civil War.

The South Carolina chapter of the NAACP recently held its annual convention.

[ image: South Carolina Senator Joe Wilson says the flag represents pride not racism]
South Carolina Senator Joe Wilson says the flag represents pride not racism
But this year members of the NAACP in South Carolina held their convention across the state line in North Carolina because their home state flies the flag of the Confederate States of America.

A symbol of oppression

It is a flag the NAACP's Nelson Rivers III describes as a hateful and hurtful.

"It represents for African-Americans what the swastika represents to Jewish citizens and Jewish people around the world. It means oppression. It means disrespect and disregard for our feelings," Mr Rivers said.

"It also represents the most heinous time in the history of this government and history of the United States as a country," he added.

[ image: Black Americans will flex their economic muscle to bring the flag down]
Black Americans will flex their economic muscle to bring the flag down
The particular flag causing is a blue cross on a red background, fluttering above South Carolina's state capitol building the problem in Columbia, South Carolina.

More than 130 years after the Civil War ended, it is the only state still flying the flag of the old pro-slavery South.

Pride, not racism

But local lawmakers, like Republican senator Joe Wilson say it is all about pride and history, and nothing to do with racism and hate. He finds comparisons with Nazis odious.

"That's offensive to me that they would take my heritage and make it into a Holocaust era type description. I find that very offensive, and it's not true," Senator Wilson said. "The Southern heritage, the Confederate heritage is very honourable."

He said that after the war, the South became the most patriotic region of the United States.

The New South

The modern South is not what it was.

These days cotton is picked by machines, not slaves, and the long and complex relationship between black and white has improved.

[ image: The flag can be found in many places in the American South]
The flag can be found in many places in the American South
But you will still find Confederate flags on lorries, cars and houses, and black people wonder why their white neighbours continue to display the symbol.

"Maybe they just don't know the history. Maybe they just don't understand how certain people or how I feel about that flag because certainly if they knew, I don't think they would continue to fly the flag," one black woman said.

Defenders of the flag understand it is used by white supremacists, but supporters of the flag argue that it does not mean the white mainstream should abandon it.

And some, like Danny Vernon, a senior member of the group Sons of Confederate veterans, warn a black led boycott is sure to backfire.

"I believe this boycott will further divide and exacerbate racial relations, which, by and large, without the controversy stirred up by the NAACP, are constantly in a healing mode all across the South," Mr Vernon said.

"Southerners generally, black or white, want to love each other, want to embrace each other, but they don't want to be needled, they don't want to be poked on issues that are very near and dear to them," he added.

Strength in numbers

At a cafe in a predominantly black neighbourhood on the outskirts of Columbia a reminder that African Americans, who make up a third of South Carolina's population, have the economic clout such numbers bring.

And after 30 years of failed political protest, they say they're determined to use that power unless the flag comes down.

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