Interesting. When we moved to the little town of Pittsfield, Maine in the '90's, the middle school team were the rebels and the symbol painted on the gym wall (they didn't have an actual mascot) was a confederate soldier carrying a confederate flag.
We were moving up from North Carolina, so my first thought was - 'Wow- this is sort of wild- this little town way up in Maine, where everyone who fought in the war had to be Union - choosing a confederate soldier as a symbol for their school, hmmm.'
But when I really thought about it - I figured it was exactly what you said, that they saw themselves as small but tough rebels.
There weren't very many black people in the town so I doubt anyone ever gave them grief over it - I know I didn't, because as I said, I'd worked it through in my own head that their intent was not racist.
In the little cafe - Corriander's it was called- on Main Street in that town, the first time I walked in, I found these two pieces of black/folk memorabilia on the wall. I remember one was of two little 'pickaninnies' eating watermelon with big smiles and saying ' THIS SURE AM SWEET!!!'
At first I was sort of flabbergasted - and thought - 'We won't be eating here,' but then I got to know Carol and Joe and their family (who were the owners and coincidentally enough hailed originally from New Jersey which is where I grew up) and they were anything but racist. They just liked the art and the colors, etc. They collected that stuff- and not as a racist statement.
Now, in my interracial family my kids and I say, 'THIS SURE AM SWEET' whenever we eat watermelon. It brings back really fond memories of our time in Pittsfield.
The point I'm making is what is a racist symbol to one person can be something else entirely to someone else.
Sometimes it really IS blissfully oblivious ignorance.
But let's put it this way - if I were driving through Virginia and I got lost and there were two houses and one was flying a confederate flag and one wasn't, I'd ask directions of the people who did NOT have the confederate flag flying (first- if they weren't home - I'd probably feel okay walking up to the next door - and I'd take one of my kids - just to see the look on their face when they thought about the flag they were flying and who might see it and how they might take it).
I'm sure it'd make them think at least.