In 2015, 150 years after the end of the war that was ignited by South Carolina’s secession, this shouldn’t even have been an argument. The Confederate battle flag has no place in that state’s – or any state’s – public life. On Monday, the state’s governor, Nikki Haley, and top political leaders. in a remarkable about-face, agreed.
The issue has arisen once again in the aftermath of last week’s ghastly shootings in Charleston, S.C., of nine African-Americans by a young man harboring white supremacist fantasies.
No one could plausibly argue that the presence of that symbolically hateful flag on the Statehouse grounds had any direct role in the murderous actions of the shooter, identified by police as Dylann Storm Roof, 21. But the flag, despite its defenders’ romantic notions to the contrary, is a racist symbol, forever linked to slavery, Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. To their great credit, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney almost immediately called for its removal from the capitol grounds.
“In Florida, we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged,” Bush noted on Twitter. That’s exactly right, though Mike Huckabee, another Republican presidential candidate, couldn’t figure it out.
“I don’t think you could say that the presence of one lunatic racist, who everybody in this country feels contempt for, and no one is defending, is somehow evidence of the people of South Carolina,” Huckabee said on “Meet the Press.” No, and nor is it the point, which Huckabee managed to evade.
It is time for South Carolina to bid its ugly past goodbye. The opening shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, and the state has clung to the “Lost Cause” mirage for far too long. The Confederacy was created to maintain the institution of slavery. A Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, became the Klan’s first grand wizard. States of the former Confederacy passed and enforced laws that required blacks to sit at the back of the bus, to eat at separate lunch counters, to stay out of white schools, to pay a tax or pass a test in order to exercise their right to vote. The South resisted the forces of change with officially sanctioned violence.
That is the true heritage of the Confederate battle flag, whatever romanticism its supporters may seek to vest in it. At yet another moment of terrible racial hatred, is it not finally time for South Carolina to let go?
Despite the heritage talk, South Carolina started flying the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse dome only in 1962, as a show of contempt for the growing civil rights movement. In 2000 it was moved from the dome to a Confederate monument on the Statehouse grounds after the threat of an economic boycott of the state.
The flag does belong to history – an ugly one, to be sure, but history, nonetheless. A museum is appropriate, but not the grounds of a state capitol whose expenses are funded by taxpayers who include African-Americans. That’s the point that Huckabee couldn’t – or wouldn’t – acknowledge, and it’s unattractive in a candidate for the country’s highest office.
It’s true that it is impossible to eradicate the flag from American life. Photos show Roof waving a Confederate flag, and his car had a Confederate flag plate on the front. Such actions are protected by free speech, just as the actions of Nazi sympathizers were in 1977 when they marched through Skokie, Ill., home of many Holocaust survivors.
But that’s different from what government condones on its own property. And, as protesters in Buffalo observed last week, it doesn’t mean that racism is confined to southern states. It exists in other places, too, including Buffalo. But this is about racially motivated murder in a state that still plays to his own racist history.
The body of one of the nine victims, State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, is to lie in state beneath the Statehouse dome today. It is an indignity that mourners will see South Carolina’s symbol of racism as they file in to mourn a man of peace.
Surely, by now, it is time to take down that flag. The South Carolina legislature should follow Haley’s lead.