Of all of the fallout of last week’s shootings, the Confederate flag seems perhaps the most symbolic and, at the same time, having the least likely impact. And yet on Monday, it seemed that South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley, alongside both U.S. Senators Lindsay Graham and Tim Scott, an African-American, was prepared to do what the New York Times said “what just a week ago seemed politically impossible — remove the Confederate battle flag from its perch in front of the State House building here.”
She said that, while the symbol was long revered by many Southerners, it remains a “deeply offensive symbol of a brutally offensive past.”
“The events of this week call upon us to look at this in a different way,” said Ms. Haley. “Today we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it’s time to move the flag from the capitol grounds,” she said.
Writes the New York Times this morning, “It was a dramatic turnabout for Ms. Haley, a second-term Republican governor who over her five years in the job has displayed little interest in addressing the intensely divisive issue of the flag. But her new position demonstrated the powerful shock that last Wednesday’s killings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church have delivered to the political status quo, mobilizing leaders at the highest levels.”
Southerners have and will maintain that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of slavery, segregation, or neo-racism. They argue for a states-rights interpretation of history and Southern legacy, as though the Civil War conflict was not primarily centered around the issue of race and slavery despite the best efforts of the leaders on both sides to attempt to avoid it.
They will ignore the fact that, for years, Southerners did not seek to memorialize the Confederacy.
As historian Eric Foner wrote in the 2000 essay “Rebel Yell,” “There is no better way to honor one’s forebears than by taking their ideas seriously…Despite claims that the flying of the Confederate flag is a tradition dating back to the Civil War, the fact is that for years after that devastating conflict few white Southerners felt any desire to memorialize the Confederacy. The cult of the Lost Cause did not flourish until the 1890s, just as a new system of racial inequality resting on disenfranchisement and segregation was being created throughout the South.
“Not until a century after the Civil War did South Carolina’s white leaders feel the need to display the flag above the Capitol, for reasons that had more to do with the 1960s than the 1860s. In March 1961, as the Civil War centennial celebration began in Charleston, a black member of the New Jersey delegation was denied admission to the headquarters hotel. President Kennedy then transferred the meeting to a nearby naval base, whereupon the South Carolina delegation seceded, holding its own “Confederate States Centennial Conference,” with the Confederate flag prominently displayed. A year later, the flag was mounted above the state Capitol as a gesture of defiance against the civil rights movement. To the flag’s previous association with slavery was now added a connotation of racial segregation.”
As CNN notes, “Back in 2000, civil rights activists successfully lobbied to have a much larger Confederate flag removed from the Capitol dome. But there was a compromise. The South Carolina Heritage Act decreed that just about all other tributes to Confederate history would be virtually untouchable. The only way to change anything of that nature — including the smaller flag that was erected on the State House lawn — would be to gain the endorsement of two-thirds of lawmakers.”
But for me this has a deeper and far more sinister root than even racism. Can one fathom Germany flying the Nazi flag over or near one of its capitols? One can argue that the Nazi flag was not a symbol of racism or anti-Semitism, and indeed the Swastika itself is more than 3000 years old with derivations back to Sanskrit.
Yet the Germans recognize that this is a legacy of shame. That they inflicted horrible atrocities on the Jewish people and indeed millions around the world. This is no legacy to celebrate.
When Apartheid fell in South Africa, they had the truth and reconciliation process which was a restorative justice-like body assembled to come to terms with their past. “Witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.”
In the United States we have changed the law – constitutional amendments and reconstruction quickly fell by the wayside of lack of political will in the late 1800s and segregation was codified by the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to step up and prevent discrimination, as they arrived at Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal clause.”
It would take another civil rights movement starting in the 1940s in the post-World War II era, gaining strength with the Brown v. Board of Education decision proclaiming “separate is inherently unequal” in 1956 and then a series of laws and court decisions in the 1960s to undo the legal forms of discrimination.
However, those efforts were met with fierce Southern resistance. Slavery was defended through secession and bitter civil war, white supremacy was defended through lynchings and other acts of terror.
By some estimates, the number of lynchings in the South approached 5000 people. Slavery, murders, terror, brutality, segregation, discrimination – and yet the legacy has never been addressed formally. Life has gone on. There has been no apology, no acknowledgement, no truth and reconciliation commission.
The flag of the Confederacy continues to fly and many defend it with no shame.
It is no wonder that race remains such a polarizing issue in the United States today, because we have not come to terms with it. There is much we can learn from South Africa and Germany in this respect.
Hopefully the actions in South Carolina are the first steps in acknowledging a legacy of violence and degradation, but I fear not. More likely it is a political move, set to mollify critics as the heat gets too high.
—David M. Greenwald reporting