South Carolina Statehouse. Photo by Flickr user eyeliam.
The Civil War ended at Appomattox 150 years ago, but the South only capitulated this week in Columbia, South Carolina.
Just a few days after a Supreme Court decision that centered on the contentious symbol of the Confederate battle flag, and in the wake of a racially motivated shooting in Charleston that left nine South Carolinians dead, Gov. Nikki Haley called Monday for the flag to be removed from the grounds of the Statehouse.
“The flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state,” Haley said. While the ultimate decision to remove the flag rests with the state’s legislature, the calls nationwide from people of all political stripes make it seem inevitable that legislators will heed the governor’s request.
Haley’s statement evidently served as a cue for other politicians to distance themselves from the flag. On Tuesday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia ordered that the flag be removed from the state-issued specialty license plate. Though the case obviously mirrors the situation in Texas that led to the recent Supreme Court ruling, McAuliffe directly mentioned South Carolina in his announcement. “As Governor Haley said yesterday, her state can ill afford to let this symbol continue to divide the people of South Carolina. I believe the same is true here,” he said. Georgia’s Gov. Nathan Deal said he would seek a redesign of the plates in his state as well, as did Tennessee’s Gov. Bill Haslam. Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn has called for the emblem to be removed from the state’s flag. And, without fanfare, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley yesterday ordered all Confederate flags removed from the Capitol grounds.
Major retailers, too, took the opportunity to distance themselves by pledging to stop selling merchandise featuring the Confederate flag, as well as the flag itself. Johanna Hoff, a spokeswoman for eBay, told CNN that the flag had “become a contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism.” And local business leaders in South Carolina, including the president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, expressed support for Haley’s decision.
The groundswell against the Confederate battle flag seems likely to prove a watershed. Suddenly, legacy and regional pride are no longer excuses for publicly displaying or mass marketing an emblem that has come to symbolize bondage, lynching and segregation. While these are also inarguably integral parts of the region’s heritage, they aren’t the sort of heritage that anyone should take pride in celebrating.
There is nothing wrong with Southern families remembering their fallen ancestors, as well as the “cause” for which they died, in a personal context. German families doubtless remember the relatives they lost in World War II. But remembrance is not the same as honor. In Germany, the swastika remains outlawed, as it has been since soon after World War II ended. Here, the First Amendment prevents any restriction on the private display of the battle flag or the “Stars and Bars,” and rightly so. People can say what they want in pictures as well as words.
But governments need not endorse or disseminate that message. The Supreme Court upheld this principle when it ruled that Texas can refuse to issue personalized license plates containing the Confederate flag. California, slightly ahead of the curve in 2014, banned the state’s display of the Confederate flag as well as the sale of merchandise featuring the symbol in state-run outlets. Free speech protections that mean individuals can display the symbol need not, and should not, dictate that governments do the same.
Now mass merchandisers, from Wal-Mart to Amazon, have also suddenly realized that they should want no part of it. So, belatedly but rightly, have Southern politicians across the political spectrum. And those politicians who have not are likely to face continued pressure to reconsider their stances, such as The Baltimore Sun editorial urging Maryland to join the states banning Confederate flags on license plates. Debate over the flag has raged for decades, but since Charleston, it has gained undeniable momentum nationwide.
In my lifetime, I’ve seen many times that social mores can shift with astonishing speed, from the acceptance of women in the workplace to the widespread support of same-sex marriage. Now we are seeing civil society’s rejection of a broadly offensive symbol of oppression and injustice, nearly overnight.
This may be the catalyst that finally puts the Civil War behind us. It’s a shame that it took the tragedy that occurred in a Charleston church to bring it about. But at least the good people who died there will have achieved something for their country that no other calls for change during 150 years of regional and racial polarization could accomplish.