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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