Flags, Flags Everywhere


In all the major and epochal events that have occurred over the past few weeks, nothing—not even the SCOTUS decision on gay marriage—seems to have been quite as tumultuous, and quite as dramatically full of rapid change as the political and cultural reaction to the shooting of nine African Americans at the historic Emmauel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Nine people—the kind of people, pastors, religious leaders, community leaders, old, young, and blameless folks, women and men, fathers and grandmothers, all of whom led lives that were admired and inspirational—were killed in the church by a young 21-year-old white supremacist. He sat with these people, members of a bible study group, for an hour, felt their presence and individuality intimately, but no curb, no compassion or empathy, no emotion touched him except the urgency of killing them because they represented everything he resented and hated in the world.

Political leaders at first were outraged—South Carolina governor Nikki Haley’s first response was to emphatically call for the death penalty of the alleged killer who was apprehended and arrested not too long after the murders, but she did not at first embrace the idea of doing away with the Confederate battle flag that flew at the state capitol. Like some others, she insisted that the flag needed to fly free. Republican presidential candidates responded with shock and not a little confusion, wondering how this atrocity could have happened and seemed baffled that it did. President Obama’s initial response was one of strong outrage, and frustration on the issue of guns.

But something else happened—the crime and the killings stunned African Americans, who felt the losses keenly and deeply, like vivid aftershocks from the worst and most violent days of the Civil Rights movement as well as more recent events involving the deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers.

But there were no people raging in anger in the streets. There was grief, lamentation and, shockingly, forgiveness. And this time, they were not alone—the outrage, and perhaps more important, the sense of loss and lost was acutely universal. In South Carolina, , where the South’s most avid secessionist had left the United States of America first as the country moved toward Civil War—white neighbors embraced their fellow African American neighbors in Charleston, weeping and full of grief.

But when the alleged killer’s manifesto fully revealed him to be a white supremacist and racist gnarled and defiant, and when a photograph of him with the confederate flag emerged, there was bi more mystery to motivation—he murdered good and upstanding people in the black community out of sheer hate. And that self-evident fact changed everything.

Governor Haley emphatically called for the removal of the flag from the state capitol grounds. “It is time to move the flag from the capitol” and she was joined in South Carolina by Senator Lindsay Graham, and perhaps more surprisingly and resonant as metaphor, South Carolina State Senator Paul Thurmond, son of the South’s uber-segregationist, the late Strom Thurmond.

The presidential candidate fell in line too, suddenly finding the wisdom to understand that the killings were not a mystery, but inspired by symbols and a warped view of history, including the Confederate battle flag. Businesses were eliminating logos and products embedded with confederate flag logs, Virginia contemplated taking the flag off of license plates.

It was a watershed rush to judgement, which seemed to include questioning the values of Southern traditions, values and history itself. One man interviewed on television, whose house was lathered in walls of confederate flags, wailed about an attack on Southern traditions, courage and values. Told that the Ku Klux Klan had used the flag, he wailed that they “stole it from us, they defiled the flag.” He, like many others, insisted that the flag (and the war) was not about slavery, but about state’s rights.

It seems in many ways a peculiarly Southern thing, this battle over the flag as a battle over the Civil War and how it is remembered and commemorated in the South. But it’s also a wholly American thing, because the war is so ingrained in the nation’s popular culture—there remain millions of people who had seen “Gone With the Wind” over and over again, and its effects should not be minimized.

Thousands—maybe millions—of people, amateur historians, battle-re-enactors—see the war as a series of battles fought bravely and most bravely by the confederate soldiers and their romantic, brilliant cadre of generals and officers—Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jubal Early, Jeb Stuart, George Pickett, Longstreet and all the others In many minds, the war exists as a series of actions—Pickett’s futile charge, the battle over bridges and ditches, the rebel yell, Stuart’s cavalier cavalry.

To African Americans in the South and all over the nation, the war was about the emancipation of the slaves, which freed slaves, without giving them freedom in their daily lives, especially in the South, which continued slavery by other means with segregation and Jim crow.

In the Washington area, the beltway culture, those symbols from the war and the old south and American history abound and abide still. At an overnight stay last year in Frederick, Maryland, we visited the cemetery where Francis Scott Key is honored and were we were startled to see the statue of a Confederate soldier, with the Confederate flag flying free behind him. Frederick also honors Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney—Scott’s father-in-law—with a statue, as does Baltimore. Taney was the author of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision which stated that the federal government could not regulate slavery in territories and that slaves free and not could never be citizens of the United States.

Perhaps the horrible murders in South Carolina might lead to some real conversations, white and black, white and white, black and black, old and young, about the past. Maybe the political air around state capitols will be a little clearer with the removal of that wounding flag.

And maybe not. You can expect the process to be painful and difficult and long. Already, no less an intellectual than Ann Coulter—and others—suggested that perhaps Governor Haley—a staunch conservative—did not fully understand the traditions of the south because she was raised in an immigrant culture..

But that initial reaction—across the country, and from most politicians on both sides of the aisle-was thunderous, in the heat of a battle that has not yet been fought, but will surely continue forward.

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