The Confederate Battle flag was one of the last banners used by the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War (sometimes called the Second War of Northern Aggression, mainly by those people whose ancestors were not victorious in the conflict.) You can check out the history of the flag here.
The flag itself is not evil, and as JoT rightly points out, it is a relative newcomer to Southern politics. But it was not pulled from the ether in the middle of the last century; rather it was dusted off when pulled from closets and hope chests.
The flag was the standard of a group who merely wished to perpetuate a way of life that had been in place in North America for nearly 500 years. Their brave, embattled freedom fighters wished to live their lives without the unwanted and unasked for changes and reforms desired by an unpopular elected leader. These reforms were enacted without referendum, and on a platform of moral superiority that most found offensive.
The slaves, of course, were not asked, nor were their wishes in the matter considered in the secession of 11 American states from the nation. The wishes of the hereditary plantation owners, who formed the major economic base for those states, certainly were. For truly (other than the slaves) they had the most to lose by a change in the way things were.
People, and Americans in particular, hate to lose. That's why the flag was still present in 6 out of 10 Southern households 80 years after the end of the war. It's why the lawfully elected government of the United States decided to prosecute a war against its own people when they decided to leave the country, but take half of it with them.
The Question on the table is whether or not the flag is a symbol of racism, or one of regional heritage.
Who gets to pick?
If I do, I'd like to invite most of North America to get the hell off my land, and cede the south back to the Creek Confederacy.
Have a nice boat ride, whitey.
[Reminded that racial slurs, like "whitey," can hurt people's feelings, Scott replied as follow. —JoT]
Too true. I'll remember that the next time a pigment-challenged person tries to "gyp", "jew", or "kife" me out of something.
In our enlightened century, my emphatic aftershot should read:
"If it is not too inconvenient, either personally, professionally, or within the tenets of a popularly accepted belief system, have a boat ride which you may or may not enjoy (not that there is anything wrong with that), persons of insufficient pigment."
Completely my fault. Must be my incompletely evolved genome acting out again.
—Scott J. Magner