After the massacre of nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church this week, questions on the state of race in this country have poured out once again.
Dylann Storm Roof, the man accused of what Charleston city leaders call a hate crime, which is also how the Justice Department is treating the attack, is an avowed racist who says he feared “blacks were taking over the world” as justification for the act of terror during a Bible study.
OPINION Follow @craignewman
In the wake of the tragedy, healing words have been heaped on the community from around the country, and state officials have rushed to lend shoulders and ears to comfort a town in shock.
But . . .
There, at the state Capitol, flies high a symbol of racial degradation and disunity – a reminder of terrorism and slavery that has stirred a new controversy amid the sorrow of this latest incident of despair to visit the black community and the most recent act of senseless gun violence the nation must contend with.
The Confederate battle flag.
It flies in Columbia, the state capital, over the Confederate Monument, a war memorial sacred, apparently, in the hearts of many southern whites who refuse to give up this symbol of oppression.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley punted on Thursday when her office was asked not about removing the flag, but simply about why it hadn’t been lowered in the same show of deference and respect as the state and national flags flying from the nearby statehouse.
That’s true. But the governor does have the authority to call a session of the legislature to demand an action that would show leadership on the question of racial equality. She can do so even as some politicians and those in the media strive to couch an act of racial aggression as an attack on religion or liberty or other wrong-headed steps to avoiding the real crime and deeper, more tragic truths of the matter.
Nine people were slaughtered for being black. And the symbol of the Confederacy snapping in the breeze is an affront to their memory as much as it is a flaunting of the very real divide among black and whites that it was originally intended to help protect.
The flag has been a contentious issue in South Carolina through the years. It was removed from the statehouse only in 2001, as a result of a compromise intended to appease. But that merely angered flag defenders and detractors more in the face of a tepid non-action.
Meanwhile, the slaying of nine African-Americans, allegedly by the hand of Roof in a racially motivated and targeted attack in a historic African-American church, has brought the debate roaring back to the forefront.
Photos of Roof, the Confederate flag proudly displayed on his license plate, have filled social media. More than 100,000 tweets in the last day, according to Topsy, have contained the term “Confederate flag.” And there have been, as well, pleas and angry cries to remove the symbol of fear that flies in the face of a black community reeling from a year of violence and fallout of altercations and attacks at the hands of authorities nationwide.
Charleston residents, joined by a national chorus, are pleading and demanding that the flag be removed. Benjamin White, talking to Mashable, said the flag is a symbol that strikes at raw nerves at a time when the pain of a community’s loss is so close.
Every time I look at it and see it fly, it hurts me, said 56-year-old Benjamin White, who was among those who had gathered to pay their respects to the victims of the shooting. They lift it high on the truck, on the Capitol building. We’ve got to get the flag down. We’re fighting for that flag to come down.
Coates argues against the idea that the flag is a symbol, the common defense for its presence, saying that it’s only a symbol for the evil that can be inflicted upon a race held in oppression:
The Confederate flag’s defenders often claim it represents heritage not hate. I agree — the heritage of White Supremacy was not so much birthed by hate as by the impulse toward plunder. Dylann Roof plundered nine different bodies last night, plundered nine different families of an original member, plundered nine different communities of a singular member. An entire people are poorer for his action. The flag that Roof embraced, which many South Carolinians embrace, does not stand in opposition to this act — it endorses it. That the Confederate flag is the symbol of of white supremacists is evidenced by the very words of those who birthed it:
But for now, there the Stars and Bars stays – not only not at half staff out of the usual show of respect that state politician at least would be afforded, but willfully soaring above the heads of those it taunts in a cruel act that speaks volumes about why the pain of loss and racial inequality are wounds that won’t soon heal in Charleston and beyond.
The flag, gone for 100 years following the Civil War, reappeared in time for the civil rights movement in 1962 — a renewed sign of defiance against federal laws and the notion of equality. It’s a symbol of heritage, to be sure, but hardly one worth being proud of if any truth is behind words spoken about unity and equality.
The flag needs to come down if the evil it symbolizes is ever to be truly eradicated, and those who celebrate its dark history are ever to be neutered of their power to induce fear with a colorful reminder of the state government-supported bad old times flapping at their backs.
Craig Newman grew up in Virginia, where the Confederate flag was an unfortunately common site.