The recent horrific act of political terrorism perpetuated by an avowed white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, last week has aroused a new round of discussion and debate about the Confederate flag and its placement in the front of the South Carolina State House. Similar discussions have emerged about racism in the United States today, the symbolism of the Confederate flag, and what defenders of the flag like former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (and many others) mean when they talk about promoting “heritage” and “states’ rights” by flying that flag. I tend to think that debating the merits of the Rebel flag gives it a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve, but continued debate seems necessary precisely because it is still considered a legitimate symbol of freedom by a sizable minority of Americans in all parts of the country.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has previously defended the act of flying the Confederate flag in front of that state’s Capitol building, or at least acted very apathetically about it. Back in October she made an economic defense of the flag and suggested that maybe it wasn’t really a big deal: “What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state. I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
Well, apparently that stance has now changed with Governor Haley’s announcement today that she would like to see the flag lowered and removed from the State House. I’m glad the Governor made this announcement, although I think it’s more than fair to ask why it took the death of nine African Americans by a white terrorist to finally advance this particular conversation when the state’s African American community has been arguing since 1964 that the flag’s presence at the State House was offensive and insulting. The publicity folks in the Governor’s circle have most likely played some sort of role in pushing her to make these comments.
But perhaps Governor Haley’s perspective really has changed for sincere reasons. I found it interesting how she argued in today’s speech that “the events of this past week call upon us to look at [the Confederate flag] in a different way.” This point reinforces a similar argument I have previously made on this website about the reciprocal nature of the past and the present. Historians often talk about the ways the past influences our understanding of the present, but it’s equally true that the present influences our understanding of the past “in a different way” as well. The American Civil War offers important insights into the U.S.’s present-day issues with racism, white supremacy, economic inequality, and unequal treatment before the law. But these contemporary issues also shape how we understand the American Civil War.
Symbols matter a great deal to individuals and societies because they convey significance to and messages about our ideas and beliefs. Otherwise, why would something like a flag be created in the first place? Many Confederate apologists and white supremacists will be unmoved by any efforts to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House, but it’s undeniable that Governor Haley’s announcement could be one of many future roadblocks for “Confederate Heritage” advocates who wish to fly the Confederate flag at public places of governance and activity throughout the South. The connection between Dylann Roof’s racist violence and his love for the Confederacy is so blatantly obvious and undeniable that we could someday see a wave of Confederate flag removals from other public places amid public outrage over this tragic event. As Brooks Simpson notes at Crossroads, “it may be that in 2015 people marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War by doing to Confederate heritage what Grant and Sherman did to the Confederacy itself in 1865.”
We will have to see how all of this plays out, but for now I will continue to stand with those who want to take down the Confederate flag–now.