Why it’s now time to take down a symbol of white supremacy

June 23, 2015
A Confederate flag flies outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia

A Confederate flag flies on South Carolina Statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina, January 17, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Keane

The removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds, as Republican Governor Nikki Haley called for on Monday, would be a major victory for racial justice. Though it required the blood of nine black innocents — martyrs whose senseless murder at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has galvanized the nation.

Surrounded by an interracial group of legislators, most notably Representative James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Senators Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Haley announced the bipartisan decision on Monday afternoon. “That flag, while an integral part of our past,” said Haley, “does not represent the future of our great state.”

These words were culled from the mass carnage allegedly committed by Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist whose online posting of blood-soaked fantasies of race war have spurred a week of national mourning, political outrage and community organizing.

Haley walks between television interviews outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston

Governor Nikki Haley outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, June 19, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The Confederate battle flag is, at its core, a symbol of white supremacy rooted in antebellum slavery. The Civil War, which began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in 1861 and concluded at Appomattox, Virginia, in 1865, was fought over the continuation of racial slavery and the very meaning of American democracy.

The Union won the war but lost the peace. It betrayed black citizenship through an immoral and illegal “compromise” that allowed white Southerners political rule, denied blacks voting rights and handed the presidency to a bankrupt Republican Party.

Jim Crow — backed by guns and lies — ruled American society, North as well as South, over the next century. The guns took the form of both legal violence (from law enforcement) and racial terror (from the Klu Klux Klan, vigilantes and white supremacist groups) that enacted a regime of terror on African-Americans. They burned down black towns and neighborhoods, assaulted women and children and set up a system of racial etiquette that punished African-Americans who violated its rigid application.

The lies took shape through a mythology, popularized in books, plays and movies, that lauded the antebellum South as a beautiful pastoral land of dignified Southern gentleman, lovely belles and happy darkies whose bucolic life was shattered by the war of “Northern aggression.”

From this warped and historically skewed perspective, the Confederacy represented a heroic defense of longstanding Southern traditions. The “lost cause” had been, in this retelling, a supremely honorable one.

It was the modern civil rights movement, particularly its heroic years of 1954-1965, that sparked a resurgence of popularity for the Confederate flag. In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating schools, many Southern states, including South Carolina, began displaying the flag as a symbol of vehement resistance and defiance against the idea of black equality and racial justice.

White supremacists and hate groups in the post-civil rights era, like Roof, have long rightfully connected the flag with its historic pro-slavery and pro-segregation origins.

So if the flag ultimately comes down, it would represent an unmistakably victory — one forged in the blood of martyrs and the impressive political organizing that’s taken place since the massacre in Charleston.  The flag’s powerful symbolism looms over public policy and political culture in South Carolina and beyond.

How could any state or country that proudly displays such a flag treat African-Americans — or any of its citizens, for that matter — justly?

Demonstrators take part in the "March for Black Lives" in Charleston

Demonstrators take part in the “March for Black Lives” in Charleston, South Carolina, June 20, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The flag’s removal from the South Carolina statehouse grounds would only be a beginning, however, on the long road we must travel in pursuit of racial justice.

Racial segregation still flourishes in South Carolina and nationally, which diminishes the life chances of black babies, children, teens, adults and the elderly. It affects far more people, however. As the Charleston massacre showed, institutional racism distorts the very fabric of U.S. democracy, limits the way Americans use their human capital and economic resources and clouds the public’s collective moral imagination.

President Barack Obama, during a recent podcast interview, unleashed the kind of searing racial candor that many supporters have been waiting to hear from him for years. “Racism,” Obama said, “we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.”

This is a critical and long overdue admission. One that, when coupled with the South Carolina governor’s call to take down the Confederate flag, inspires optimism that the United States may finally be turning away from the politics of racial denial that have haunted discussions of race for far too long.

The next, and most crucial step, will be in the arena of policy. Obama can start by issuing an executive order reviewing the Justice Department’s Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program. He could re-direct the billions of dollars now used in incarcerating black and brown men and women, instead using it for rehabilitation and to support black communities as if they’re as precious as whites.

Haley should follow up her symbolic call for removing the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds with substantive policy reforms that would help end racial and economic inequality.

The United States again finds itself at a racial crossroads. The advent of the “Fifth Estate” — social media — now precludes Americans from keeping their heads in the sand and ignoring those at the bottom of society, who comprise such a tragically large portion of nation. These marginalized corners of society, who Americans continue to ignore at the nation’s political and moral peril, contain the seeds not only of South Carolina’s transformation toward racial equality but of America’s as well.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Burn it where you see it. Confederate flag is a symbol of ignorance and treason. They picked a fight with the United States and lost. If Southerners can’t salute the American flag alone, they are free to move elsewhere.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Burn it.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Amazing how the liberal agenda jumps on this one mentally ill inbred freak and tries to use him to represent White America. What an insult- RAcists are those for whom everything is tinged with race and so yes, there are many of those in the USA, a lot of them NOT white.

Do you also think that the looters in Ferguson represent Black America? I’m getting tempted to start believing so, as they are defended by so many people who call themselves Americans with their “no justice no peace” chants.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

Why not put it to vote? That flag had about as much to do with the cowardly, heinous murder of the 9 parishioners as a long dead confederate soldier. The flag is uniquely American. Put it to a vote.

Posted by tech_penny | Report as abusive

racist – a person with a prejudiced belief that one race is superior to others [definition courtesy of The Free Dictionary by Farlex]

A racist is NOT someone who brings up race and thus asks people to consider it in some aspect. However, racists ARE in denial by suggesting Roof was just “one mentally ill inbred freak,” by implying that Blacks are treated equally in this country and if not, they DESERVE to be treated poorly.

Bigots always cloak themselves in some saintly narrative to provide cover for their intolerance and hate. And they know how to play on people’s fears and insecurities. But let’s not let them get away with it anymore. Let’s face racism with honesty and determination and work together to help this country grow stronger and more united than ever before.

And let’s start by taking down that flag in South Carolina.

Posted by distancematters | Report as abusive

Interesting how two people can look at something and see two completely different things. I was born and raised in the South, and always associated what we called the Rebel flag, with trailers and rednecks. But then I moved away from the South, and had to listen to rude comments about Southerners and Texans ‘moving in’. They went to war to keep the South in the union, then want to whine and complain about Southerners moving in? It was profoundly insulting. I got homesick, and tacked a Rebel flag on the wall in the garage. Dr Joseph: if it offends you I understand why, but it really isn’t my intention. To me it is a symbol of where I am from, and a form of protest against obnoxious yankees.

Posted by diluded0000 | Report as abusive

No where else in the world have the victors so magnanimously allowed the vanquished to display symbols of their lost cause. The confederate symbols so proudly proclaimed to be ‘heritage’ and culturally important have always really been, and will always truly be emblems of slavery, oligarchy, economic and racial opression. To claim otherwise is both willfully ignorant and unnecessarily provocative.

The confederate battle flag, the museums full of memorabilia, and all the detritus of the losing side should be clearly identified in controlled settings as the embodiment of a slave-holding, tyrannical past. No respect is deserved, and no respect should be offered. Give them what they do deserve: a tiny place in the dustbin of history.

Posted by MusicIsMagic | Report as abusive

LetBalanceCome ponders: “Do you also think that the looters in Ferguson represent Black America?”

Do the looters in Ferguson have a flag at a State Capitol?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Civil War pitted industrial wage slave North against agrarian chattel slave South. The war converted southern chattel slaves into wage slaves so labor throughout the USA could be bought (rather than sold) for a pittance. Nobody justifies chattel slavery but it took nearly 80 years to end the worst aspects of wage slavery. The hypocritical posturing of the North never gets enough attention in this so-called battle for moral supremacy.

Posted by CALARISTOS | Report as abusive

Tufts. Figures.

Posted by Jkalndr | Report as abusive

It was the flag of the southern states (the confederacy) who were traitors to their country and propagated slavery which is a form of racism. It is a symbol of the enduring belief by some southerners that the war will be fought again and this time the south will be victorious. However, let us not forget that the northern army was predominantly volunteer and predominantly white. They fought to end slavery because slavery’s existence enslaves all. That is to say, commerce, trade and the ability to rise up through labor do not exist for individuals if slavery does exist. The whites of the north fought to free the slaves but also to free themselves from the competition with slavery which would have eventually lead to kings and serfs again like in earlier Europe. The people of the US once knew this truth, that the purpose of liberty and freedom for all was to have ones own freedom and avoid the inevitable enslavement that comes to all when a few immoral individuals own everyone else, either through real slavery or the mentally induced slavery that many suffer from now. They fought to work to make their own lives better and to earn the benefits of their own labor. That is what freedom really is.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

I am highly perplexed and I feel as though I am at my wits end. Certain language, double talking, double thinking and the romanticizing of tough realities. Out of respect for all I will go no further than the mere mentioning of the term “innocent”. “Galvanized the nation”? What nation? To have any conceptualization that the civil war was fought for any other reason than to give birth to and fuel the leviathan that is capitalism you are no student of history. Furthermore to suggest that the Americans who indeed fought in the war to end slavery did so as a sudden “moral awakening” or even as an attempt at being and acting “civil” is psychologically criminal. Immediately after the war up until present day there is a separation and dissociation in image, treatment and overall value of a black man in America and the blonde hair, blue eyed, blue blooded American. What I’m really here for is answers though, I want to understand how the confederate flag is a symbol for hate and should be removed but the American flag is o.k.? Does the American flag not help symbolize and give you a clear visual image of the founding fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution? The founding fathers couldn’t measure up and they were jealous and proud of it, petty, unjust, control freaks; vindictive, blood-thirsty ethnic cleansers; misogynistic, pedophilic racist, infanticidal, filicidal, pestilential, sadomasochistic, capricious malevolent bullies. And those aforementioned documents that is the very foundation of the very idea and concept and societal actions as a nation, it’s roots are soaked in blood with hatred for the African and Indigenous ones. Woe to those who accept their second class citizenship and thank and grovel in the presence of those who make it possible. The black man in America is a man without a nation. The day this truth becomes self evident is…

Posted by Ausar3 | Report as abusive

Confederacy = ignorance, treason, racism. These are people who picked a fight with the United States. And lost of course. Confederacy is the flag of white hoods and toothless tweakers.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

South Carolina started the Civil War. It is a problem child and should have its allowance taken away.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

…while confederate flag represented blacks oppression, star spangled banner at the same time methodically eradicated red race…so much for race hatred symbol

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

A racist is someone for whom everything is tinged by race. Period. You just cannot handle the truth that you are a racist. 21 shot in DC this weekend, 19 in Detroit, not even on national news because the shooters were Black, pure and simple racism right there but hypocrite liberal media is racist.

Illegal aliens march all the time in Los Angeles and what do they wave? The MEXICAN flag, but you hypocrites are all just fine with that.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

If the Confederate Battle Flag is a symbol of white supremacy then you must REALLY hate the American flag. You do know that Lincoln DID NOT free northern owned slaves. Only those in the South and only for the purpose crippling the Southern economy.

I understand that you are a professor of history. Then you must have read at least some of Lincoln’s personal letters during the last year of his life. His stated agenda for his second term was to PURCHASE all remaining slaves in US, reimburse Southern slave owners for their financial loss of property and send ALL BLACK PEOPLE BACK TO AFRICA. Blacks were not intelligent enough to live in this country and would do better back in Africa.

Posted by jimcochran | Report as abusive