Webb Seeks To Clarify Defense Of Confederate Battle Flag : It's All Politics Ex-Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., has defended the Confederate battle flag for years, making a nuanced argument for what it represents. But that's been complicated after the shooting at a Charleston church.
NPR logo Webb Seeks To Clarify Defense Of Confederate Battle Flag

Webb Seeks To Clarify Defense Of Confederate Battle Flag

Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who is running for president, speaks at the Urbandale Democrats' Flag Day celebration on June 14 in Urbandale, Iowa. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who is running for president, speaks at the Urbandale Democrats' Flag Day celebration on June 14 in Urbandale, Iowa.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

On the day when Nikki Haley, South Carolina's governor, proclaimed it "a new day in South Carolina" and signed into law the removal of the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds, one Democratic presidential candidate sought to clarify his stance on the flag's place in American history.

Jim Webb, the former senator and current presidential candidate, provided a nuanced answer to whether he was glad to see the flag gone during an interview with CBS Thursday.

"Well, I think it's long been due to come down," Webb said. "The Confederate battle flag was a battle flag; it assumed a lot of unfortunate racist and divisionist overtones during the civil-rights era."

He added that it was important, though, to remember the "very complicated decision" a young person being called to duty during the Civil War era had to make.

"I've been trying to reinforce that we need to remember two other parts of our history here," Webb said. "One is the complexity of the Civil War itself. Only 5 percent of whites in the South owned slaves. And only 25 percent of the whites in the South had anything to do economically, while at the same time there were four slave states that remained in the union during the Civil War — Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware."

The contentious debate over the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag unexpectedly reached the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday. Republican leaders abruptly nixed a scheduled vote that would have approved the flag to stand at cemeteries operated by the National Park Service.

The intensity of this latest push reached a fever pitch following the June 17 slaying of nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C. Shooting suspect Dylan Roof, who is white, is believed to have ties to white supremacist organizations and there are images of him on social media posing with the Confederate flag prior to the shooting.

Webb, a Marine who served in Vietnam and is former secretary of the Navy, is a descendant of Confederate officers. Following the church killings, Webb took to Facebook to defend the Confederacy and remind the public that many non-slaveholders fought for the South.

"But we should also remember that honorable Americans fought on both sides in the Civil War, including slaveholders in the Union Army," he said in that post.

In the CBS interview, his first with a national media outlet since he launched his candidacy through his website earlier this month, Webb said there's been a great sense of growth of unity in the South since the civil-rights era.

"The South has never been white against black, per se," Webb contended. "It's always been a small veneer manipulating the emotions of white against black for all these other reasons."