In the end, it took the murders of nine African-Americans and an impassioned plea by a descendant of Jefferson Davis, but in the middle of the night Thursday, the South Carolina House voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the Statehouse. The Senate had already passed the bill and, later Thursday, Gov. Nikki Haley signed it. On Friday, the flag came down.
Predictably – even understandably – it was an emotional debate. As offensive as that flag is, reeking of racism and drenched in the blood of hundreds of thousands of Americans, many Southerners still associate it with valor and commitment to a cause, though surely one of the worst causes for which people ever spilled blood. But South Carolinians aren’t the first people to defend their forebears’ wrongheaded sacrifice.
Time passes more slowly than we think. This year marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and of the year that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman laid waste to South Carolina, the first state to secede from the union. And still, 15 decades later, people cling to a symbol directly associated with slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow. Indeed, it was in 1961 that the South Carolina legislature resurrected this relic as its ugly answer to the burgeoning civil rights movement: segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.
But with the murders of nine churchgoers – including state Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney, who was also the church’s pastor – and the heart-rending forgiveness the survivors offered to the killer, Haley said the divisive Confederate flag should come down. Soon after, the state Senate voted in overwhelming agreement.
The House was a different matter. Debate stretched on for hours as opponents sought to kill the measure with amendments and succeeded, for a time, in turning the tide against passage. Then Republican state Rep. Jenny Horne rose to speak.
A descendant of Davis, the Confederacy’s only president, Horne delivered an impassioned, sometimes angry speech to the chamber. “I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday,” Horne shouted as she wept. “For the widow of Senator Pinckney and his two young daughters, that would be adding insult to injury.”
Horne told the Washington Post that she had become fed up with the obstructionist tactics of her fellow Republicans. “The real issue is that that flag is a symbol of hate and it’s on a public ground where people, the entire state, they own that Statehouse,” she said.
Even then, it took another five hours to pass the measure. But it got done, and its impact is spreading. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has asked the City Council to remove four statues honoring Confederate leaders from prominent places in the historic city. He also wants to rename Jefferson Davis Parkway in honor of Norman C. Francis, a prominent civil rights figure who was also president of historically black Xavier University.
In Alabama, the City Council voted to remove the Confederate flag and other banners from the city’s official seal. In Mississippi, lawmakers have been conspicuously silent about the flag, prompting a critical front-page editorial by the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss.
The issue has even moved to Congress, where House Democrats, led by black members from the South, defeated an effort by Republicans to allow Confederate symbols at national cemeteries.
All of this is heartening. It is neither necessary nor helpful to try to wipe out all evidence of the Confederacy from the South, but it is indisputable that the symbols are freighted with bigotry. Even 150 years later, it is good news that these painful discussions are taking place. And that they are leading to action.