2015 has the makings of a historically tumultuous year for race relations in the United States of America. As the nation continues to reel from the stories and images of black bodies left lifeless in the street by vigilantes and police alike, the conversation has shifted from how far we’ve come as a nation, to how much more we can take and a nation divided. The latest act of merciless violence on American soil is the slaughter of nine black bodies at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina – one of the oldest and most historic black churches in the country – at the hands of a white gunman. Beyond the universal condemnation of the shooter and his actions, the American people have responded by taking a long hard look at one of the most significant and divisive symbols in the country’s relatively short history.
The Confederate flag never had its heyday. Adopted by the Confederacy during the Civil War, the flag was the proud symbol for a soon to be defeated and outlawed institution. While the roots of the flag arguably lie in a somewhat perverted form of nationalism – as the initial seven states of the Confederacy succeeded from the United States and formed their own “nation” built on their shared culture, beliefs, and values – when viewed in context of what the Confederacy fought for and hoped to achieve, the flag is viewed by many as little more than a lasting symbol of oppression and a brutal reminder of a civil war that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. The Civil War ended in 1865, and for a country with a history of bloodshed as rife as the United States, it’s enduring legacy is a testament to the power of emotion, nostalgia, and unfortunately, mis-education.
Since the shooting, investigations have recovered several images and documents confirmed to be of, or by, Dylan Roof, the man charged with the murder of nine people in a church last week in South Carolina. Roof’s fascination with the flag and it’s symbolism have sparked global debate about its place in modern American society; a society that has repeatedly espoused claims of equality, justice, fairness, racial progression, and even racial harmony. The debate rightly centers on the question of how any of those things can co-exist with a symbol like the Confederate flag waving proudly over citizens that have felt the repercussions of the history that the flag represents, and continue to face obstacles that are in no small way related to the symbol.
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As early as the Monday following the June 17th attack, there were several reports of both political and business entities debating the continued use or promotion of the flag, and more than a handful have already taken action in disassociating with it. Speaking with the Wall Street Journal regarding the recent actions, David Beasley, the former Republican governor of South Carolina said “It’s amazing the difference today compared to 15 years ago… People 15 to 20 years ago that would have said no way are now saying it’s a good idea. The others are saying it is time now to do it.”
Showing the haste in response to last week’s massacre, on Monday, South Carolina Rep. Gov. Nikki Haley called for the Confederate battle flag to be taken down from the Statehouse grounds, and the following day South Carolina’s Senate introduced a bill to remove the flag. “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” Ms. Haley said as she spoke in the statehouse lobby. “My hope is that by removing a symbol that divides us, we can move forward as a state in harmony, and we can honor the nine blessed souls,” she added. In Mississippi, the only remaining state to display the battle emblem on its banner, the Speaker of the House Rep. Phillip Gunn called for its removal from his state flag.
In a statement in response to the actions of various politicians, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill issued a statement, saying, “The recent images of the confessed killer Dylann Roof draped in imagery of the confederate flag, both in person and on his vehicle, demonstrate the dangerous message sent when the flag is displayed as the backdrop of our nation’s public institutions… We can no longer deny the impact that the confederate flag has in promulgating hate and extremism directed at African-Americans. This flag should never be visible in public spaces that are supposed to represent all citizens…”
Today, an additional report surfaced that Alabama Gov. Rep. Robert Bentley ‘ordered the removal of four Confederate-era flags from the grounds of the state Capitol’ in the early hours of the morning.
In a statement released by NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks, he says – “Removing the Confederate flag in this moment is not only ethically right but unequivocally American. The Southern region of our country is known for its hospitality. Nothing is more hospitable than creating an environment of inclusion for people of all races, colors, creeds and faiths.”