It’s become a virtual ritual. A Southern state legislature, a Southern governor, a Southern heritage group, or school board defiantly announces that the Confederate flag will fly on state property, at a state sponsored Civil War celebration or commemoration, on a school, or will be stamped on a personalized license plate. The predictable happens. The NAACP or local civil rights groups, or black leaders loudly denounce the flag and announce the launch of mass protests and a campaign to get the flag defenders to back down.

Florida is the latest to ignite the always incendiary issue of what should be done about the Confederate flag. A federal judge ruled that the Sons of the Confederacy could move forward and get the state to issue a specialty license plate with the Confederate flag embedded in it. The Florida Legislature initially denied the group’s request.

The Florida imbroglio once more raises the ancient question: Is the Confederate flag as its defenders repeatedly claim merely a symbol of Southern history, pride and heritage, and has absolutely no political or social connotations, let alone intended as a symbol of slavery and a prop for racism? Or is it as the NAACP repeatedly maintain a blatant display of bigotry and racist defiance that symbolizes slavery and black oppression and is a direct slap in the face of blacks a century and a half after the South was vanquished on the battlefield?

The truth, as always, lay somewhere in between. For decades, the Confederate flag, or some variation of it, has either flown or been displayed or embedded in state flags in Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, and Alabama and in decades past in other Southern states.Thousands of motor vehicle owners have requested personalized license plates with the Sons of Confederate Veterans logo which embeds the Confederate flag in it for their cars and trucks in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

And thousands of white motorists tool down the state and city highways in parts of the South with the Confederate flag decal on their windows and bumpers. Does that tag them as a racist? Some are, and they embrace the flag to puff up their unabashed racism. But for many other Southern whites, the flag and its association with Southern history, is a genuine source of pride and identification. for many young whites that emblazon the flag on their attire, wave it at rock concerts, or football games, and other sporting events, it’s just a hip, in-crowd, stitch of cloth that’s little more than a chic fun and games display.

They know little and could care less about what the flag meant, and the racial oppression that the flag has symbolized. They know nothing about the defiance of Southern legislatures and governors that dredged the flag up in the 1950s and adopted variations of it in their state flags as a blatant, open rebellion against court ordered integration in schools and public facilities.

But no matter what the motive of the flag defenders, whether it be pride, ignorance, racism, or just youthful style, the NAACP and civil rights leaders that have fought ferocious battles against the display of the flag on public property, at taxpayer expense, and that includes thousands of African-American state taxpayers, stress that the flag undeniably was the symbol of a region that drenched the nation in blood for four years to defend values, a way of life, an economy and a political system that had slavery as its bedrock. And for decades after was a symbol of the South’s rigid domination and brute force control of African-Americans.

Polls taken during the titanic battle by the NAACP in 2000 to have the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina State House found that the overwhelming majority of African-Americans backed removing the flag completely from the Capital building. State legislators played hard ball and refused. The NAACP then launched a well-publicized national boycott of the state. The flag still flies on the Capitol grounds. In the years since, athletic associations have often criticized the state for flying the flag when teams play sporting events there.

The two wildly clashing views of the flag’s meaning are again on full display in the Florida license plate controversy. The commander of the Sons of the Confederacy in the state cheered the court decision as a victory for free expression and the group’s right to express Southern pride and heritage.. The Florida NAACP was just as adamant in opposing the specialty plate and flatly called it a hurtful symbol for blacks. Is the Confederate flag a symbol of pride or hate? It’s both. And that guarantees that the flag controversy won’t die.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a national Capitol Hill broadcast radio talk show on KTYM Radio Los Angeles and WFAX Radio Washington D.C. streamed on The Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on blogtalkradio.com and wfax.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson