A bad day for the Confederate flag

Symbols matter. The death of symbols matter. And yesterday, in the wake of the Charleston shooting, one of the most glaring symbols of systemic and cultural racism in America took a few body blows.

It started on Saturday when Doug Brannon, a Republican state senator from South Carolina, called for his state to stop flying the Confederate flag over the State House building. Said Brannon, quoted by the Associated Press:

I just didn’t have the balls for five years to do it. But when my friend was assassinated for being nothing more than a black man, I decided it was time for that thing to be off the Statehouse grounds…It’s not just a symbol of hate, it’s actually a symbol of pride in one’s hatred.

Brannon’s call stood in stark contrast to other Republicans both in and out of the state. Senator and presidential candidate Lindsey Graham had previously said that the flag “works here.” South Carolina’s governor Nikki Haley had previously said that the flag was OK because CEOs hadn’t complained about it.

Nikki Haley, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Nikki Haley, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

However, Brannon’s call, along with pressure from others around the country, built momentum for those lawmakers to reverse their position. Haley, joined by Graham, held a press conference endorsing the removal of the flag, warning lawmakers that she was willing to hold a special legislative session if they failed to act before the current one expires.

The South Carolina legislature appears ready to accommodate. The Post and Courier has an active whip count of South Carolina legislators regarding a newly-introduced flag removal bill, and at their current count the ayes have it — although many have not yet gone on the record one way or another.

And the hits kept on coming. Haley’s announcement paved the way for Republican presidential candidates to voice their disapproval of the flag’s presence on public property. Having previously avoided the issue when at all possible to keep from alienating the sizable bloc of racist voters in the South Carolina primary, it took a sitting Republican governor’s go-ahead in order to make it acceptable for them to openly condemn the flag. But the go-ahead was given, and condemn it (some of them) did.

But it didn’t stop in South Carolina. Later in the day, Mississippi’s Speaker of the House, Philip Gunn (R – Clinton) called for his state to remove the Confederate elements of its flag. Mississippi remains the only state in the country to feature the Confederate battle flag as part of its own, and the state voted in a referendum to keep the flag as-is in 2001 (South Carolina’s official state flag does not include the Stars and Bars, which makes its presence on public property even more transparently racist).

As if that weren’t enough, Wal-Mart announced yesterday that it will stop selling merchandise featuring the Confederate flag. As NBC reported yesterday, searching for “Confederate” on Wal-Mart’s website returns zero results, and the links that show up on Google searches for “Wal-Mart Confederate flag” produce dead links. Clothes and other items featuring the Confederate flag will be phased out of the retail giant’s physical locations.

It’d be easy to overstate how big of a deal this is, so I’ll try not to. Removing the Confederate flag from public buildings and major retailers won’t topple the statues of Confederate generals that stand in public squares throughout the South, and it won’t change the names of roads dedicated to Confederate leaders. It certainly won’t reform our criminal justice system and it won’t make it any easier for African-Americans to vote. And to be honest, we’re talking about removing the Confederate flag instead of doing these other things because it’s the only politically viable thing we can do right now. After all, we’re talking about public policy in South Carolina.

But when the Confederate flag comes down, we get one step closer to accomplishing all of those other things. When we are forced to come to terms with the fact that we have gotten a question as simple as “Should we give an avowedly racist symbol political and cultural legitimacy?” wrong, we’re reminded that we continue to get many more difficult and impactful questions wrong, as well. It shouldn’t have taken the brutal murder of nine people in a church to make the flag come down, but it might. And if it does, it’ll be a sign of slow, painful progress.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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25 Responses to “A bad day for the Confederate flag”

  1. AnitaMann says:

    The arguments I’ve heard from the former flag-defenders who now say it should come down are along the lines of: too bad a mass killer had to ruin the true meaning of this nice flag. No. The flag IS about white supremacy. The shooter just made it crystal clear. Some still don’t get it.

  2. Indigo says:

    Concerning Confederate flag worship:

    One hundred and fifty years ago today, June 24, 1865, the Roman Catholic Confederate Army chaplain, Father Abraham Joseph Ryan, wrote these emotional words:

    The Conquered Banner

    Furl that banner, softly, slowly!
    Treat it gently—it is holy–
    For it droops above the dead.
    Touch it not—unfold it never,
    Let it droop there, furled forever,
    For its people’s hopes are dead!

    It’s way past time for the neo-Confederates to heed those words of Father Ryan just days after the end of the Confederacy. Furl that flag, unfold it never.

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  4. BeccaM says:

    The part I find funny/sad is how none of the mainstream reasons given for venerating the flag of secession and rebellion ever hold up to close examination.

    They’ve tried to claim it’s because the attempted secession wasn’t about slavery at all…which is belied totally by the writings and speeches of the time, before and during the war. They’ve tried to claim it’s about “heritage” (whatever that mean) and not racism…yet every time since the Civil War when there’s been a popular revival of the Confederate flag (especially if trotted out by politicians and advocacy groups), it’s always been in the name of racist causes. The Confederate flag has been adopted almost universally by white supremacist groups, often to the point of flying that flag and the Nazi flag side-by-side, and yet this isn’t seen as indicative of what the flag actually represents.

    I don’t know, maybe there are some actual innocent non-racist Southern folks out there who just want a symbol of regional pride, and there just isn’t anything else that isn’t already tainted. So they try to pretend that the Stars-and-Bars isn’t soaked in the blood of rebellion and slavery. As they’re learning now though, it doesn’t work, not when there are racist terrorists who want to make that flag their symbol, too.

    Personally though, the one image that really haunts me was the South Carolina state capitol, the photo showing the U.S. and South Carolina flags both lowered to half-staff out of respect for the Roof’s massacre victims, but the Confederate flag remained at the top of its pole, literally padlocked there. And worse, it didn’t even seem to occur to South Carolina’s Republican governor or the rest of them that just maybe it could be taken down for a few days “for routine maintenance” (allowed by the very same law they falsely claim takes a 2/3 majority to repeal).

    To me, that says everything about what’s wrong in all this: The Confederate flag is accorded more respect than the nine murder victims who were killed in that flag’s name by a racist terrorist.

  5. dcinsider says:

    That long, slow slog still continues for African-Americans 50 years after the Voting Rights Act in the slave states.

    My biggest concern with your post is that you are probably right. More’s the pity.

  6. dcinsider says:

    OK that’s just hilarious!

  7. Houndentenor says:

    Agreed. My concern is that the news media will drop the story now that there’s a statement from the governor, meanwhile the flag stays up. Yes, keep the pressure on.

  8. Bill_Perdue says:

    All of that is true and what will bring working people together is fights against Obama’s union busting, his obnoxious proposal for a minimum wage and to organize the unorganized.

    The left and the labor left are leading those fights and the fights to cordon off the threat of racism, which in today’s world is just another name for fascism. Others are OK with fascism here and in the Ukraine.

  9. FLL says:

    I think the South is changing on a city/county level. For example, I wouldn’t be surprised if Birmingham, Alabama adopted an anti-gay-discrimination law within the next few years (based on information from my personal Alabama informants). I think that’s the short-term trajectory for the South—city by city, county by county.

  10. FLL says:

    Government use of the Confederate flag needs to be a thing of the past. That includes “vanity” license plates issued by the state of Texas, and that’s exactly how the U.S. Supreme Court just ruled (opinion written by Stephen Breyer). The reasoning that Breyer and the majority used is that vanity license plates issued by the state department of motor vehicles are examples of government speech (as opposed to speech by individual citizens) and therefore not protected by the First Amendment. The same principle applies to the Confederate flag flying in front of the South Carolina capitol building.

    Now as far as my fellow commenters who don’t like the First Amendment… what’s up with that, huh? Don’t like free speech? Do some commenters feel that everyone should kiss their ass or get fined or thrown in jail? That really sounds like people who didn’t get enough attention from mommie and daddy when they were growing up. Well, that’s what you would end up with in a Marxist, one-party “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Until then (i.e., until never), the First Amendment allows individuals (not the state) to express themselves any way they want. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t protect citizens from the consequences of their speech (e.g., being unpopular, getting fired by their embarrassed employer, etc.) Does the U.S. Bill of Rights make sense? It should.

  11. gratuitous says:

    I think that’s the danger: “Well, we got rid of some flag somewhere. All done!” No, it’s not all done. It’s barely begun (again). I’ll be glad when this display is dismantled and the capitol grounds can be enjoyed by all the citizens and visitors in South Carolina.

    But we’re not done. Not by a long shot.

  12. nicho says:

    These divisions are necessary to the One Percent. They need to keep wedges between segments of the population. So, whether it’s gay vs straight, black vs. white, middle class vs poor, hispanic vs non-hispanic, whether we’re arguing over same-sex marriage, guns, the confederate flag, the “war on christmas,” etc, etc etc. these deliberately driven wedges keep the 99 percent from realizing their commonality of interests and how they’re all being screwed by the One Percent. If the 99 percent ever realize that they have more uniting them than dividing them — the One Percent is in some serious deep shit.

  13. dcinsider says:

    I hear they are replacing it with a rainbow flag with a red line through it.

    Onto the next hatred. This is the south after all.

  14. Bill_Perdue says:

    If it were in any way a post racist society Obama would order that the DoJ indict, track down, arrest, prosecute and then punish all of the hundreds of cops who murder civilians, particularly people of color.

    We all now he won’t do that.

  15. UncleBucky says:

    THAT needs to be banned, too.

  16. UncleBucky says:

    A 2/3 vote from both houses, fine, but the Governor can issue a temporary directive to keep it out of sight UNTIL the legislature produces a bill.

    KEEP the pressure on, however.

  17. UncleBucky says:

    Brannon regarding the Traitor Flag: “it’s actually a symbol of pride in one’s hatred.”

    Seems to me that is the crystalized issue. PRIDE IN ONE’S HATRED. √

  18. Bill_Perdue says:

    That’s not even one of those tiny steps that liberals are so fond of. At the minimum, the sale and display of the slaver flab ought to be banned, just as Nazi symbols are banned in Germany under the provisions of GermanStrafgesetzbuch (Criminal Code), section 86a. see Wiki for law

    Hate speech and hate organizations from the KKK to NOW should be banned for promoting harassment, beatings and murder.

    We all know that won’t happen in a society ruled by the rich and administered by Democrats and Republicans. Socialists will enact and enforce anti-hate laws dealing with racism, anti-LGBT bigotry and discrimination against women, immigrants and union members.

  19. nicho says:

    If Southerners want to celebrate their “heritage” with a flag, they should fly the last flag used by the Confederate Army — the white flag.

    People who claim that flying the traitor flag has something to do with Southern “heritage” are full of shit. The South has a 400-year long history and heritage — very rich and very complex. The Confederacy accounts for about five years out of that 400 and was a disgrace. Some “heritage.”

  20. Houndentenor says:

    Removing the confederate flag requires a 2/3 vote from both houses of the state legislature. Keep the pressure on, because getting the governor to finally agree that the flag should be taken down is the easy part of actually making that happen.

  21. devlzadvocate says:

    Taking the Confederate flag down is an important step, but the white hood and sheet remains a threatening symbol.

  22. Indigo says:

    I place the Confederate battle flag in the same league with the Nazi’s twisted swastika. It’s a tricky matter to decode them though because the Cross of St. Andrew is a wonderful ancient Christian symbol and the horizontal swastika is a venerable totem of the Buddha, the sun, and the Wheel of Dharma. It’s important to dispel the malice that attends both the Confederate flag and it’s Nazi cousin. At the same time, it’s important to tread carefully as we edit these historic matters.

  23. AndyinChicago says:

    I have no qualms about getting rid of this symbol of racism, and I’m excited it’s suffering some push-back. But I fear that this is where conservatives think the conversation ends. How many times did we hear that we were in a post racial society from the election of President Obama to around the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin murder. I feel that this is stripping the racist component of the south of a symbol, but in doing so, ending the conversation that needs to be had. I hope that I’m wrong.

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