It’s Long Past Time To Abandon The Confederate Flag
The murders in Charleston have revived a debate that should have been over a long time ago.
In the wake of Wednesday night’s massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, and because it occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, arguably the birthplace of the Confederacy and secession, attention has been turned to the long-standing issue of the Confederate Battle Flag, especially given the fact that the flag that flies on the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol in Columbia has not been lowered to half-staff like both the American and South Carolina flags have:
In solemn tribute to the nine people gunned down at a Charleston church, two flags atop the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, were lowered to half-staff on Thursday. They will stay there for nine days in honor of each victim.
But in a bewildering display, a Confederate flag on statehouse grounds is still flying high. It wasn’t an oversight. It’s because of state law.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has jurisdiction over how and when state flags fly — but the Confederate flag is under the authority of the state’s General Assembly, lawmakers told NBC News. It can’t be changed in any way without a sign-off from the General Assembly.
The flag — as well as other historically named icons and places — is legally protected under the 2000 South Carolina Heritage Act. The rebel banner continues to draw criticism from South Carolinians who say it keeps the symbol of slavery and the Civil War alive.
Haley while she was campaigning for governor last year said she there was no need to take down the Confederate flag. She addressed the controversy Friday on CBS This Morning, saying that she hopes a conversation can be started again with “thoughtful words to be exchanged.”
“I think the state will start talking about that again, and we’ll see where it goes,” Haley said.
Her office didn’t immediately respond to NBC News for further comment.
South Carolina isn’t the only state where you can find the Confederate Flag, of course. It’s prevalent all over most of the states of the defeated Confederacy and in plenty of places in the North as well. The State Capitol in Columbia, though, is one of the few places left where you can find it flying at an official public building. Many states in the South have removed it, albeit after national controversy in many cases, and when he was Governor of Florida Jeb Bush had the flag taken down and placed in a museum. In Mississippi, you can find a representation of the flag on the official State Flag itself, something that was actually endorsed with nearly 65% of the vote in a 2001 referendum of Mississippi voters. Because of the attack in Charleston, though, and because of South Carolina’s place in history, the flag has become an issue in the last two days, especially given the sight of that flag flying at full mast while the American and South Carolina flags fly at half mast.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the political leadership in South Carolina has waffled on this issue. Senator Lindsey Graham said that the flag is part of who South Carolinians are, whatever that means. Congressman Mark Sanford, whose district includes most of Charleston including the area where the church that was attacked is, waffled on the question of the flag by calling it an “intense debate,” which is of course blindingly obvious. Governor Nikki Haley, meanwhile, has said that at the least the shootings in Charleston should reopen the debate on the flag, which is more than any other Republican in South Carolina is saying.
On a practical level, I am told that the Confederate Flag flying in Columbia cannot be lowered to half-staff because it isn’t designed that way. Even if that’s not true, though, it strikes me that lowering that flag “in honor” of people who were killed by a racist terrorist who targeted them because of their race completely misses the point. The flag itself is an insult, to them, to African-Americans, and to the men who died to preserve the Union, and Ta-Nehisi Coates gets it absolutely right when he says that it needs to come down:
The Confederate flag’s defenders often claim it represents “heritage not hate.” I agree—the heritage of White Supremacy was not so much birthed by hate as by the impulse toward plunder. Dylann Roof plundered nine different bodies last night, plundered nine different families of an original member, plundered nine different communities of a singular member. An entire people are poorer for his action. The flag that Roof embraced, which many South Carolinians embrace, does not stand in opposition to this act—it endorses it.
Surely the flag’s defenders will proffer other, muddier, interpretations which allow them the luxury of looking away. In this way they honor their ancestors. Cowardice, too, is heritage. When white supremacist John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago, Booth’s fellow travelers did all they could to disassociate themselves. “Our disgust for the dastardly wretch can scarcely be uttered,” fumed a former governor of South Carolina, the state where secession began. Robert E. Lee’s armies took special care to enslave free blacks during their Northern campaign. But Lee claimed the assassination of the Great Emancipator was “deplorable.” Jefferson Davis believed that “it could not be regarded otherwise than as a great misfortune to the South,” and angrily denied rumors that he had greeted the news with exultation.
Moral cowardice requires choice and action. It demands that its adherents repeatedly look away, that they favor the fanciful over the plain, myth over history, the dream over the real. Here is another choice.
Take down the flag. Take it down now.
Inevitably, there will come a point when the debate about the Confederate flag, or the Civil War in general, will reach the point where defenders will argue that the flag is merely part of a “culture” and “heritage” that doesn’t really have anything to do with racism or slavery. The reality, though, is that this is exactly what the Confederacy was all about. As Coates notes, when the Confederacy was first founded, Alexander Stephens, who would soon become the nasceant nation’s Vice-President, delivered what came to be known as the “Cornerstone Speech” in which he made clear what the new nation was all about:
Our new is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
The Confederacy, in other words, was founded on the principle that blacks are inherently unequal to whites, that slavery was a good thing, and that it should be defended and expanded into new territories. In addition to that fact about the government that Stephens helped established, though, there lies the fact that, in the decades after the Civil War, and most especially during the Civil Rights Era, that flag became the symbol of resistance, preservation of Jim Crow, and of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. It is, as Jonathan Capehart noted back in 2012, a symbol deeply offensive to African-Americans in general, and especially those who have living memory of that era.The heritage arguments that the defenders of the flag raise are, in the end, nothing but utter nonsense not the least because there is nothing about the heritage that banner represents that ought to be honored or remembered in a positive light.
Coates is right. The flag in Columbia should come down. Additionally, the people of Mississippi need to wake up and fix their state flag, although considering that they only finally ratified the 13th Amendment two years ago, I’m not sure how soon that would happen. More broadly, people in the South and across the nation need to see that banner for what it is and to recognize that, in the end, the Confederate Battle Flag is no different from the Nazi Swastika. Others may have their own idea, but to my mind the best thing to be done with it is to burn it.