The cold blooded, premeditated murders of nine people attending Bible study at the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina was a brutal and senseless tragedy. And yet, out of this tragedy we saw example after example of proof that the South and our nation are more eager than ever before, to find a way out of the historical abyss of racial hatred that motivated the murderous gunman.
We’ve seen vigils attended by hundreds of people, mostly locals and mostly Southerners, joined by Americans from all over the country, mourning the deaths and celebrating the lives of nine of the best of their fellow citizens. We’ve seen unparalleled grace in the forgiveness offered to the murderer by the members of the victims’ families.
We’ve also seen long overdue movement towards the private, public and commercial abandonment of the Confederate Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, as a symbol of the contemporary South. Most importantly we’ve seen movement towards rejection of the battle flag as a part of the official symbolism of state governments.
The battle flag, was hoisted above the South Carolina State house in 1962, below the American flag and the official state flag. The battle flag was then moved to the Confederate Memorial Statue in front of the South Carolina state house in July 2000.
To be fair, South Carolina was not the only state to revive Confederate flags as a symbol of resistance to federal civil rights mandates of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. Georgia incorporated the battle flag in its design from 1951-2001. Mississippi’s flag, adopted in 1864, still contains a prominent battle flag.
More significantly, the battle flag was a mainstay, an omnipresent symbol of the defiant spirit of the South, at demonstrations, segregationist political rallies and Ku Klux Klan gatherings of the civil rights era throughout the South.
Last week, we saw the physical removal of the battle flag from the South Carolina state capitol grounds. It was done as a protest. It was done as an expression of frustration. Less than 30 minutes later, the flag was replaced and again flew over the state capitol grounds. But that protest, however well meaning, missed the point.
There was never a time since July 1, 2000 when someone, anyone, couldn’t climb the flagpole in front of the South Carolina State house and unclip the flag. At best, those efforts would have netted the same temporary fix as that which attended this latest effort.
The real point is that this tragedy has put many well-meaning southerners on the line. It has tweaked their collective moral conscious. It is demanding accountability. It has called them to task. And many more Southerners than most of us expected or gave them credit for, are answering the call.
Now, faced with the undeniable reality that this historical relic, as a contemporary symbol, emboldens the kind of evil mindset that created this latest murderer, many Southerners are acknowledging that the contemporary heritage it honors, is unworthy of the modern South. And they have decided that that heritage is not, when all is said and done, one they wish to champion. They have concluded that the Confederate Battle Flag belongs in the past, as does the racist hate which spawned its contemporary resurrection.
So, the key is not simply the physical removal of this Confederate flag. Rather the significance lies in it being removed as a matter of public policy; as a matter of public law; and as a matter of public morality. The power of its removal lies not in keeping the battle flag furled. The power of the removal of the flag lies in the acknowledgment by State governments that they will no longer stand with those who would threaten, intimidate, oppress and divide its citizens.
Rethinking the role of this troubling symbol in southern society could have significance far beyond the flagpoles from which it now flies. Its removal from official sanction could signal another positive step towards reconciliation of white Southerners with their African-American brethren.
Maybe, in the face of this murderous tragedy, the South is ready to move away from the failings of the past. Maybe the South as a whole is ready to eagerly pursue a new commitment to gracefully and publicly embrace a stronger future of brotherhood, respect and community. And maybe the nation, as a whole, will follow. Is America ready for a new paradigm? We’ll see.
James H. Swain is an attorney and author. He is an experienced labor lawyer and worked as a federal prosecutor for over 20 years in Philadelphia and Miami.