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Away, Away, Away Down South in Idaho

How the Gem State whistles Dixie in the shadow of flag flap

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This week, the South Carolina Legislature takes up the debate on whether to remove the Confederate battle flag from its statehouse as the Civil War-era symbol remains at the center of a renewed debate over whether it is an emblem of hatred and ignorance, or evokes a legacy of rebellion. The flag still flies and certainly insults its foes, atop countless homes, businesses and vehicles across the nation—including in Idaho, where a few critics say the Stars and Bars is a mainstay in the most "Southern" of the northern states.

"I see them all over," said Dr. Todd Shallat, Boise State professor and director of the university's Center for Idaho History and Politics. "You want to see the confederate flag? Go to a truck stop. Gun racks. Coffee mugs. Belt buckles... Man and his symbols."

The symbol isn't new, but it's a tangible centerpiece in a national conversation happening in the shadow of the fatal shooting of nine African-Americans in a South Carolina church. Within hours of the mass murder, photographs of the gunman—now charged with a hate crime—were all over the Internet, showing him posing with the Confederate battle flag.

"This is a wakeup call to the nation," Cornell Brooks, NAACP president and CEO, told NBC News. "Would you feel safe walking into a room of swastikas and Nazi paraphernalia? In the same way, Americans do not feel safe, do not feel comforted by this emblem of hatred, bigotry, bias and slavery."

Nate Pyles does not see any of that when he looks at the 13 stars and the two blue bars criss-crossed over a field of red.

"When I see the Confederate flag, I see the fight for limited government," Pyles told Boise Weekly.

Pyles, a real estate investor and former minister, serves as chaplain for the Nampa chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a national preservation society limited to male descendants of those who served in the Confederate armed forces. Pyles said he had two great, great uncles who fought for the South.

"I think of the blood sacrifice," he said. "Obviously, slavery is a horrible thing. None of us are racists. Slavery and racism are an anathema to our organization, both locally and nationally. But the southern states felt trampled by a big federal government."

Therein lies the heart of Idaho's post-Civil War history, which still has some Idahoans whistling Dixie.

"The most Southern places in America, the heart of deep Dixie—that was home to many people who ended up coming to Idaho," said Shallat, author of more than 20 books on history and culture. "The story of Idaho starts during the Civil War, the Oregon Trail and General [Ulysses] Grant's drive through the South."

Grant's 1862 victories at the battles of Shiloh, Tenn., and Vicksburg, Miss., pushed some Confederate deserters, draft dodgers and many who simply wanted to escape the war to the Oregon Trail and points west.

"In the beginning, southern Idaho and the Boise Basin absolutely were controlled by confederates," said Shallat. "Then Lincoln organized the territory. Lincoln Republicans controlled Idaho's first hierarchy of state government, but the Legislature was controlled by the Democrats."

It doesn't take too much effort to trace those Southern roots, beginning with the Elmore County town of Dixie (founded in 1864), the Boise County community of Confederate Gulch, the Canyon County town of Dixie and the Boise County area known as Grayback Gulch, named for the large number of Confederates, aka "graybacks," in the region.

U. S. Senator William Borah, dubbed the "Lion of Idaho," was posthumously honored by having high schools, streets, a park, and a University of Idaho foundation and theater named in his honor. Borah was noted for his isolationist views during his unsuccessful run for the U.S. presidency in 1936, but less is said about Borah's affinity for the South.

"One of Idaho's most famous Southern sympathizers was Borah. His story is very complicated and tangled up with the South," said Shallat. "When he ran for president, he had a constituency that looks exactly like the presidential electoral map that Mitt Romney had in 2012. There was Idaho, Wyoming and Utah and then the Deep South. The Republican map of 2012 was the same map as the early part of the 20th century."

The ranks of Southern sympathizers were shored up, according to Shallat, by two significant waves of so-called "white flight," in search of less diversity: in the post-Civil War years and again in the 1970s. But the '70s brought waves of white people from southern California, and with them, some strong prejudices.

"The newer arrivals were more militant. Idaho conservatives, before then, had been more libertarian, but those southern California conservatives brought in a lot of white people who thought that their place in society was being eroded," said Shallat. "And they like Idaho. And they sure liked our attitude toward guns. They were really interested in arming themselves."

Shallat added it didn't take much to connect the dots of that conservatism to a culture of guns.

"You see those gun racks on the trucks and the Confederate flag, too. There are plenty of Southern alliances," he said. "I don't know if most of them see it as a symbol of white supremacy. But, you know what? It's still about man and his symbols."

Meanwhile, at the Nampa chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Pyles said while he sympathizes with African-Americans' view of the Confederate battle flag, he aligned the same feelings to Native Americans.

"Do you know what? It's a bit like Native Americans when they look at the U.S. flag," said Pyles. "That's a lot of hurt and insult, too. There's a lot of horror in our history."

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