Why isn’t that racist flag already gone?

June 23, 2015

The Confederate flag is a symbol of hate. Getting it taken down--for good--will be a step forward in confronting the legacy and reality of racism in 21st century America.

TO THE millions of people across the U.S. who are horrified and outraged by the massacre of nine Black parishioners at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by an avowed white supremacist, it really goes without saying.

Take down that racist flag. Right now.

"What do you do if you find you have cancer?" Tom Hall told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "You cut it out. You don't wait."

Hall was among the demonstrators who crowded onto the lawn in front of the South Carolina Capitol building, where the Confederate flag still flies. The protesters had a loud-and-clear message for anyone who listened too long to the right-wing hot-air machine: The Confederate flag isn't about "heritage." It's about hate.

This was the battle flag raised by Confederate troops who fought for the preservation of slavery in the South and secession from the Union. It was the flag waved by supporters of segregationist Strom Thurmond's "States Rights" Democratic Party campaign in 1948. When the Ku Klux Klan and the racist "Citizens' Councils" terrorized participants of the civil rights movement, the symbols of racist segregation were the white hood of the Klan and the flag of the Confederacy.

The Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol building
The Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol building (Jason Lander)

As the civil rights struggle began to overcome and achieve advances in federal legislation like the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the Confederate flag went up over the racist-dominated statehouses across the South--an act of sullen defiance against the strides for justice made by the Black freedom struggle.

That's when the vile "Stars and Bars" went up over the South Carolina Capitol building in the modern era. It's been taken down and stowed away in some Southern states. But it's the flag that still flies on the grounds of the statehouse in Columbia.

And it's the flag that white supremacist Dylann Roof posed with in pictures to show off his fanatical racism. The only "heritage" he was honoring was the heritage of hate.

As South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, another Republican presidential hopeful, said after the massacre last week: "It works here."

PROTEST--AND the utter shock of the rest of the world that the Confederate flag was still flying as the family and friends of Roof's victims mourned--forced South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to finally say she was in favor of taking down the flag at a June 22 press conference.

This is a far cry from just eight months ago, when she had this to say: "[O]ver 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."

It seems pretty easy to comprehend: Stop displaying a symbol of slavery and white supremacy on the grounds of a government building in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on Black church members. But some politicians, including a few presidential candidates, couldn't find it in themselves to say the right thing.

Asked by ABC News' Martha Raddatz, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum bobbed and weaved. "You're a candidate for president," Raddatz persisted. "Do you not have a position on this at all?"

"I don't think the federal government or federal candidates should be making decisions on everything and--and opining on everything," Santorum said. "This is a decision that needs to be made here in South Carolina."

Sure, it's a matter of state's rights--that same tired excuse that Southern states used when they refused to desegregate in the 1950s.

Mike Huckabee felt the same way. Standing by his 2008 statement to a South Carolina audience that "you don't like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag," the former Arkansas governor told NBC's Chuck Todd: "For those of us running for president, everyone's being baited with this question as if that has anything to do whatsoever with running for president." He continued, "My position is: It most certainly does not."

Of course, not taking a stand on the Confederate flag has nothing to do with respect for the people of South Carolina to make their own decisions. It's about not opposing racism, not offending the racists who you want to vote for you--and pretending that racism doesn't exist, much less flourish, as it does in 21st century America.

There have been angry protests in South Carolina, including a demonstration of hundreds in which a banner with the names of the nine victims was hung on the balcony of the Confederate Museum--and public outrage nationwide, with more than 300,000 people signing onto a "Take Down the Flag" petition within days.

This put the flag and the racism it represents on the table and forced Haley to say something. Now the question is whether the governor will make good on her word.

"Compromise" legislation passed in 2000 moved the flag off the top of the Capitol dome, but put it in one of the most prominent spots on the surrounding grounds--near a monument to Confederate soldiers, yet more "heritage" that deserves to end up in history's dustbin. At the time, some flag supporters chanted, "Off the dome and in your face."

The 2000 legislation also stipulated that the flag could only be moved again if two-thirds of both the state House and Senate agree. Since that time, there have been several attempts to get rid of the Confederate flag, but they've never made it out of committee. The next session of the state legislature isn't until January, but if she wants to, Haley could order a special session to do it now--while all eyes are on South Carolina.

AS LONG as the Confederate flag is displayed, the government of the state of South Carolina is telling Black people that it doesn't represent them--and that Black lives don't matter.

In fact, there are more rules protecting the flag of slavery than the rights of African Americans in South Carolina. When reporters asked why the American and state flags were flown at half-mast after the massacre at the Mother Emanuel Church, but not the Confederate flag, they discovered these exacting regulations--for instance, "This flag must be flown on a flagpole located at a point on the south side of the Confederate Soldier Monument, centered on the monument, 10 feet from the base of the monument at a height of 30 feet." There is no pulley system, so it can't be lowered.

South Carolina officials weren't so worried about "rules" in April when a North Charleston police officer shot Walter Scott eight times in the back after stopping Scott for a traffic violation. Or when the cop threw a Taser near Scott as he lay dying to make it look like Scott had stolen a weapon. Or the dozens of acts of abuse carried out by the North Charleston Police Department, which has been sued 46 times since 2000 in federal court alone.

In a place where Black life is treated so callously--as evidenced by both the symbols of racism flown from state flagpoles and the actions of police and city officials--it's not surprising that a white supremacist felt like he could commit acts of unspeakable violence.

And as those who have been taking to the streets to say that "Black Lives Matter" across the country know well, this systematic racism isn't just a South Carolina problem. Racism isn't something out of the Old South's ugly past. It is alive and well in American institutions at every level--from its police forces and prisons, to the inequality in its schools, to the continuing discrimination in jobs and housing.

Taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina won't solve these problems, but it will be a sign that even a political and business establishment steeped in racism and violence has been forced to retreat--and that's a step forward for all of us who intend to make sure that Black lives matter.

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