Jim Jenkins

The time is right on the battle flag


North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders are intentionally missing a chance to make a progressive stride, to take a stand, that would at least keep us up with a state we’ve long regarded as walking a little to the rear of us on social issues.

South Carolina lawmakers, following the horrible shooting deaths of nine people in a Charleston church last month, voted to remove a Confederate battle flag from the site of a monument on the Capitol grounds. The young shooter had been photographed with Confederate symbols.

And the flag has been used by white supremacist groups and thus has long been an offensive symbol to African-Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in the Old South.

As the South Carolina House debated the issue it appeared the flag measure debate might drag on and perhaps amendments would derail it. Then Rep. Jenny Horne took her colleagues to the woodshed in an emotional speech that basically pushed the flag removal through. She referred to the battle flag as “a symbol of hate.”

The state of North Carolina’s Division of Motor Vehicles offers a specialty license plate for members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans that features the Confederate battle flag or something that very closely resembles it. That appearance is the way the state Court of Appeals characterized it in 1998 when it recognized the “sensitivity of many of our citizens” to the battle flag but left it to the General Assembly. The SCV, as members call it, wanted to be viewed as a “civic club” and thus be eligible for the plates. It won the day.

Now, even post-Charleston, the DMV has had to order a batch of new flag plates because the others sold out.

The SCV isn’t by definition a racist group, and not all members think the South got a raw deal. It’s also true that most of us white Southerners in our youth heard tales of heroic ancestors and had, or have, lying around a sword or a pistol attached to those ancestors.

But this is no time for the DMV to be ordering more plates. It’s time, rather, to just stop it.

Gov. Pat McCrory, at least, has called for the DMV to stop issuing the plates. But GOP legislative leaders hesitate. They’re just scared of angry feedback.

As time goes on, those old symbols we took so casually became more offensive to African-Americans and to those who came to understand the horrific waste of that Civil War and the hate that seemed to infect generations in the South thereafter. It’s time to rid ourselves, at the least, of government sanctioned “symbols of hate.”

I have in a desk papers sent to me by a guide from the Gettysburg Battlefield site detailing the fatal injuries received by my great-great-grandfather on July 1, 1863. He owned no slaves and like most of the men with him had several children who would not see him again. He signed on doubtless in the heat of a “patriotic” moment and with the encouragement of wealthy Southerners who wanted to protect their economic interests, their ownership of “cheap labor” being part of those interests. He fought and died far from home. I’m told he was an honorable man. But the cause was not. And no Southern state needs to sanction official recognition that somehow it was.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com