After decades of bitter debate over whether the Confederate battle flag is a proud symbol of regional heritage or a shameful emblem of this nation’s most grievous sins, the argument may finally be moving toward an end.
South Carolina is leading the way for other states, as it considers removing the flag from its capitol grounds in the wake of a horrific racial hate crime.
The historical poignancy is heavy and resonant, given that the murder last week of nine African Americans took place in a church basement just a few miles from where the first cannon shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861. Photos that have since surfaced of the accused killer, Dylann Roof, show him posing with the Confederate flag.
The banner was long considered politically sacrosanct in the South, at least among conservative whites. It now appears that a rush is on to banish it, along with other images that evoke the Confederacy and sow racial divisiveness.
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“It’s a baby step of progress, but we had to step through the blood of nine dead people,” said former College of Charleston president Alex Sanders, a longtime critic of the flag.
On Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, pressed for his state to quit issuing license plates with the insignia and replace those already on the road. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, both Republicans, also said they wanted to get rid of the license plates in their states.
And in Mississippi, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, Philip Gunn, has called for the Confederate battle cross to be removed from the upper left corner of his state’s flag. As recently as 2001, Mississippi voters weighed in by a margin of more than 2 to 1 to retain the rebel badge as the dominant feature of their state flag.
Meanwhile, businesses are moving with breathtaking speed to remove the symbol from their inventory. Within the space of less than 24 hours, retailing giants Wal-Mart, Sears, eBay and Amazon all announced they would no longer sell Confederate-themed merchandise. Valley Forge Flags, a leading flagmaker, says it will cease to make the Stars and Bars.
“It is important for us to escape the specific gravity of all of the things that caused the Civil War, and the main thing that caused the Civil War was slavery,” said filmmaker Ken Burns, who made a nine-part documentary of the war that cleaved the country. “That Dixie flag is a shorthand for the perpetuation of those values.”
At the Wal-Mart in North Charleston, South Carolina, employees said that the store pulled all Confederate flag items three days ago.
Where they once would have been, shelves were stuffed with American flags. Shopper Carol Lincoln, 56, an African-American nurse from Charleston, said she supported the removal of Confederate paraphernalia.
“Yes, take it down, down, down. Take it down so there will be peace in South Carolina,” she said. “The meaning of it got twisted somewhere. That twist led to terrible things happening.”
Religious leaders have also weighed in, saying the moral imperative is clear in the wake of the Charleston killings.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote on his blog last Friday: “The symbol was used to enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lines by night. The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”
Moore, head of the public policy arm of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, is a Mississippian whose ancestors fought for the confederacy.
His own sensitivity to the issue was raised more than a decade ago, he recalled in an interview, when he invited an African-American friend to his home for dinner and realized that his guest might be offended by the Mississippi flag he displayed there. Moore took down the flag, which had been retrieved from the wreckage of Hurrican Katrina, and it fell apart in his hands.
Though Moore expected “tremendous blowback” from his blog post, he said the reaction has been almost uniformly positive.
In calling Monday for the removal of the flag from the capitol compound, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley – the daughter of Indian immigrants – stood alongside dozens of influential South Carolina figures in a striking tableau the state’s modern-day ethnic and political diversity.
“A hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come,” the Republican said.
Yet there is also resistance. South Carolina state senator Lee Bright – a state co-chairman for the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas – called the proposal a “Stalinist purge.” And Amazon registered a surge of buyers for Confederate-themed merchanise in the hours before the company decided to quit selling it.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners on Tuesday that the effort to get rid of the flag is aimed at “destroying the South as a political force,” and he predicted: “The next flag that will come under assault, and it will not be long, is the American flag.”
Jared Taylor a former board member of the Council of Concerned Citizens – a group cited by Roof in a racist online manifesto – intimated that the current effort to cast “blame” on white southerners and their history could actually bring more violence.
Whites “are being told that their ancestors were wicked white slave owners and they are being asked to bear guilt that has come down through the generations,” Taylor said “I fear that if this message is redoubled and repeated there will be those white southerners who cannot control their anger.”
Its defenders say that the Confederate banner is a link to southern history, and an expression of opposition to federal encroachment on states’ rights. But in many southern states, the flag did not gain currency until the 1950s and early 1960s, at a time of white resistance to desegregation efforts and the civil-rights movement.
“If it was purely a flag representing the region, albeit one involved with a stupid war, I would be proud of it,” said Curtis Wilkie, a journalist and historian of the South, who teaches at the University of Mississippi. “Yet it’s become something entirely different and therefore objectionable.”
Over the years, there were a number of efforts to do away with the confederate flag, which projected an image of being stuck in another century.
“It’s a topic in boardrooms,” said Andy Taggart, a longtime adviser to the Mississippi GOP. “For years we’ve had to grant every other state a little bit of a head start because we’ve needed to overcome the fact that we’re still perceived as firmly ensconced in our view of the past.”
The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce began pushing in the late 1990s for its removal from the Capitol dome in Columbia, where it had flown since 1962. Some of its members resigned from the organization in protest. As a compromise, legislators decided in 2000 to remove the flag from the building and fly it on the statehouse grounds instead.
While the reaction against the flag was no doubt a reflexive one after the murders in Charleston, it also had a generational dimension.
Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, a Republican, said an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday that he is “not offended at all by our flag or the Confederate flag.”
But his nephew, 50-year-old Henry Barbour, a member of the Republican National Committee, disagreed with his 67-year-old uncle.
“Charleston has to be a catalyst, especially the response from the families, which were remarkable and so godly,” Henry Barbour said Tuesday. “I’m ready to see us move on. I respect the hearts of others who disagree, but it’s time to fold up our flag, put it in a museum. Our flag should represent every one of the 3 million people who live in Mississippi.”
Washington post staff writers DeNeen L. Brown contributed to this report from Charleston, S.C. Tom Hamburger and Philip Rucker also reported from Washington.