President Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall, a literal Cold War division of East and West Germany, and famously declared, “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev!” Today, tens of thousands of South Carolinians, joined by their governor and other political leaders, are effectively saying “Take down this flag!”
Fifteen years ago, it felt like progress when the General Assembly voted to move the Confederate battle flag from atop the State House to the Confederate memorial on the capitol grounds. The controversial symbol of succession and white supremacy had flown on the capitol since 1962. The legislature decided to mark the centennial of the Civil War by flying the battle flag – a typically defiant act when one thinks about it – but did not designate a take-down date.
Some maintain the battle flag is an important part of the state’s Southern heritage and that displaying it respects and honors the memory of long-dead ancestors who fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War. Honoring those who died in the Civil War can be appropriately accomplished in places other than the State House.
All the “Southern Heritage” arguments about the battle flag are trumped by the inescapable, indisputable fact that the flag long ago was preempted by violent white supremacy groups starting with the Ku Klux Klan. Heritage revisionists attempt to disregard the fact that “their flag” has become a symbol of racial hatred – as the slaying of nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston clearly showed. Before shooting six women and six men, Dylann Storm Roof, 21, stayed for nearly an hour at a prayer meeting on June 17. Now formally charged, Roof’s pre-shooting activities, including holding the battle flag, leave no doubt about this being a hate crime.
The public reaction powerfully suggests that Roof accomplished exactly the opposite of what he intended. The Charleston community, the state, indeed the nation, have come together in remarkable unity. In Christian charity, the families of the victims swiftly forgave the gunman. In the Senate chamber in Washington, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., led an emotional tribute. “What we saw from the nine families at last Friday’s bond hearing was simple, was powerful, and absolutely the best of who we are as Americans,” Scott told fellow senators who gathered around him. “We are Charleston. We are South Carolina. And, we are absolutely united.”
Earlier, joining Gov. Nikki Haley in calling for the battle flag to come down, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., noted that the people were ahead of the politicians in their expressions of unity: Members of several Charleston churches gathered around Emanuel A.M.E. on Sunday morning; That evening, 15,000 people made a human chain, holding hands across the Ravenel Bridge.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who ordered the removal of four Confederate flags at a large monument outside the Montgomery capitol building this week, noted the battle flag “is offensive to some people because unfortunately, it’s like the swastika; some people have adopted that as part of their hate-filled groups.” The swastika was an ancient form of a cross; the name has a meaning of well-being or benediction. In the years prior to World War II, the symbol was modified and used as a fascist emblem, particularly by Nazi Germany, and a symbol of anti-semitism.
Bentley used his executive power to remove the flags; we imagine Haley would do the same if she could. Unfortunately, changing any S.C. “heritage” symbols requires a two-thirds super majority in both legislative houses.
The Confederate battle flag is a symbol of secession as well as white supremacy. Those claiming the flag’s Southern heritage and rural values are indulging in revisionism. Claims that the “War Between the States” was about “states’ rights” or “for our freedom” or “economic reasons” dance around the root cause of the conflict: the right of states to continue slavery, and all its inhumane, barbaric aspects, including selling and buying human beings and treating them as property.
Certainly those who oppose removal of the flag are right in saying taking it from the statehouse grounds won’t change hearts and minds. But removing the battle flag from its highly public place is an important symbolic change. Its departure says the state of South Carolina does not endorse the often violent racism the flag has represented for over a century.
Its departure also doesn’t mean that those who fought for the Confederacy will no longer be honored by their descendants for their willingness to fight for what they thought was right. It does mean that the nucleus of government will no longer bear a symbol that not only doesn’t represent a significant portion of South Carolina’s taxpayers, but demeans them.
The great Southern general Robert E. Lee knew that symbols such as the battle flag should be retired at war’s end, 150 years ago. It’s long past time to strike the battle flag at the State House as South Carolina continues to pursue its future on several fronts, economic and social.