The following editorial appeared Oct. 7 in The (Columbia) State:
Two decades ago, [The State’s] editorial board began a campaign to remove the Confederate flag from the State House dome. Our argument was two-fold: It was flying inappropriately in a position of sovereignty, and it was needlessly dividing our people.
After six years, the Legislature forged an uneasy compromise to remove it from a sovereign position, but it did not do so in a way that united us across race and class and party. As we said at the time, relocating the flag was an improvement, but the middle of our state’s front lawn — at the intersection of Gervais and Main streets — was not an appropriate place to leave it.
And we waited for the right time to reengage the campaign. Waited for someone to bring together business leaders and civic leaders and faith leaders and political leaders in overwhelming numbers to demand that the flag be moved to a museum, and done so in a way that brought us all together. The way then-Gov. David Beasley seemed to be doing in 1996, before he gave up.
South Carolina’s governors aren’t powerful, but they can make a difference on an issue they care passionately about. Yet none of our governors or would-be governors would lead this fight. Some were wishy-washy, some ignored it, and some embraced the flag — none in a more cringe-inducing way than when then-Rep. Nikki Haley delivered her oath of fealty to neo-Confederates in a videotaped interview four years ago.
Then last week, out of nowhere, Sen. Vincent Sheheen stepped in front of a lectern in the shadow of the flag and called for replacing it with the U.S. flag.
Gov. Haley’s spokesman called Mr. Sheheen’s action “desperate and irresponsible.”
It might in fact be desperate, and Mr. Sheheen seems an unlikely candidate to carry this banner, having said practically nothing about the flag through 16 years in public life.
Certainly he is being opportunistic — though it’s no more opportunistic to raise an issue you know will appeal to your political base than it is to promise not to raise that issue because you know it will offend part of your base.
It might even be unproductive. A news conference is not going to accomplish anything. It will take assembling a coalition of business leaders and civic leaders and faith leaders and political leaders, Democrats and Republicans, black and white. And if no one does that hard work, it could be that much more difficult for the next would-be leader to raise this issue. Of course, if Mr. Sheheen manages to defeat Ms. Haley, he will be bound to do that hard work, to reassemble that coalition.
But irresponsible? Really?
How is it irresponsible to declare that “We must be a state that looks forward, towards a future of possibilities, not backwards to discord”?
How is it irresponsible to want our state “to be celebrated not as the state that left America, but as the best state in America”?
How is it irresponsible to acknowledge and act according to this simple truth: You don’t spit in your neighbor’s face just because you can?
Just the opposite. This is one of the most responsible things that we’ve seen a politician do in some time — acting like a leader, on the right side of an issue.
We understand that many people see the flag as a tribute to their ancestors, who they feel fought bravely in defense of their state. But it is a flag that does not represent any government, past or present. It also is a flag that hearkens to a time when our state actively dehumanized African-Americans — South Carolinians whose descendants now make up a third of our population. Clearly that is now who we are as a people today.
Rather than having her spokesman make ludicrous charges about irresponsibility, Gov. Haley should tell us whether she believes the flag belongs front and center on the State House grounds. Not whether she supports the fact that the Legislature reached a compromise before she had ever stepped foot inside the State House. Whether she believes the flag ought to be where it is. For that matter, we’d like to hear the same from Henry McMaster, since Mr. Sheheen was joined in his announcement by Rep. Bakari Sellers, who is running against the former attorney general for lieutenant governor.
We wish the flag could be removed today, but that is a political impossibility until South Carolinians unify behind the call for change. Eventually that unity will come, and the flag will be moved to an appropriate place of honor. It will be moved because a broad coalition of South Carolinians will have agreed that it must be moved.
Whether it is Mr. Sheheen or someone else who takes the lead, we look forward to the day when South Carolinians of good will move the flag and allow our state to finally and fully turn our attention to building a better future.
For today, we welcome Mr. Sheheen’s willingness to become the first candidate for governor who has pledged to help lead us to that future. Will there be another?