The Confederate battle flag has come down.
After 15 years of it being on the grounds of the South Carolina State House, over two-thirds of the legislators in both houses voted to have the flag removed. Governor Nikki Haley signed the bill and that was that. The next morning, the flag was taken down.
Prior to the flag being on the grounds of the State House, it had been flown on the capitol dome since 1962. It was placed on the dome is protest to the Civil Rights Movement’s push for racial desegregation. In 2000, the political leaders of the state reached a compromise and the flag was moved from the dome to the grounds. This writer went to Columbia in July 2000 on the day after it was moved, and saw it flying peacefully. As I saw this symbol that dominated part of the presidential campaign in 2000, a black gentleman in a car at a red light shouted over to me, “It has to come down” before he drove off. This week the driver got his wish.
The way this whole thing unfolded over the couple of weeks, however, was unsettling.
The push to remove the flag was in direct response to the June 17th mass shooting in Charleston where nine churchgoers were gunned down at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The shooter was Dylann Roof, a white 21-year-old man, who purposefully chose that church due to its long history beginning during the slavery era, through the years of Civil Rights Movement, to the current day. Based on shooter’s writings, Roof’s gunning down of the members of this church was motivated out of racial hatred. All nine victims were black.
In the wake of the shooting, a number of prominent national politicians called for the flag to be removed. Crowds came to the State House in protest of the flag. At a press conference on June 22nd, South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley, called on the legislators to vote to remove the flag. Haley was joined by a many of the state’s leading politicians, including both sitting U.S. senators.
One key reason this has become an issue is that a photo surfaced on Roof posing with the battle flag. The problem is that the killing of the nine people had nothing to do with the flag.
The governor and the legislator have used this tragedy to address this controversial symbol. Many in the state and across the country have long wanted the flag removed. Exploiting the murders of these church parishioners, however, is not the way to settle this issue. This was not the way to honor the victims. Also, a sensitive matter such as removing the flag should not simply be left to the political leadership. The flag belongs to the people of the state. The people should, by referendum, decide whether or not to keep it on the State House grounds. The people who view the flag as a symbol of Southern history and not a symbol of racial hatred must feel a sense of betrayal. A symbol they have had a deep connection to has essentially been taken from them at an emotionally charged time when they were political powerless to prevent it from happening. These people will not be quick to forgive. Or forget.
Still, many across the state and the nation have applauded the move. And Governor Haley has become a national figure for her role.
Whatever one feels about this battle flag, there was a right way and a wrong way to have it removed. The political leadership in the state chose the wrong way.