Darby: NAACP fighting to put flag in historical context

Guest ColumnistOctober 8, 2009 

As one of the authors of the NAACP's sanctions to promote the proper contextual display of the Confederate flag now flying in front of our state capitol, I remember the events and rhetoric surrounding what passed for a "compromise" nearly a decade ago. Those who cut that legislative deal predicted that the NAACP's sanctions would become moot and "collapse under their own weight."

Nearly 10 years later, however, the issue still makes the news, the sanctions are still in effect, and many national organizations are still avoiding South Carolina. The Atlantic Coast Conference's decision to hold its 2011-13 baseball championships in North Carolina rather than Myrtle Beach has caused considerable consternation to those who blithely considered the matter to be settled, as if wishing could make it so.

Sen. Glenn McConnell, in a commentary on thestate.com ("ACC should be ashamed to back NAACP boycott," Sept. 23), was insultingly strident in his condemnation of the ACC and called the NAACP a "fringe organization." I'd like to respond to Sen. McConnell. I will not, however, try to match his insults and innuendo word-for-word. My Southern mother taught me that only those with indefensible positions and closed minds resort to rude insults.

African-American legislators began calling for removal of the flag in the mid-1970s to no avail. Attorney General Travis Medlock issued a 1993 opinion that the flag was flying by continuing resolution, not by force of law. During prayer for progress by a diverse group of 200 interfaith clergy who encircled the State House in 1997, the Legislature reacted by approving legislation to see that the flag flew by force of law and could only be relocated by a super majority. No "compromise" was sought until it became evident in 1999 that the NAACP would enact economic sanctions. Progress in South Carolina always comes not by sudden noble intent, but as a reaction to effective and ongoing pressure.

It should also be noted that the NAACP was not a party to the "compromise." We stayed away from the negotiating table because some of Mr. McConnell's legislative colleagues bluntly said that they would not support any solution endorsed by the NAACP. The African-American legislators at that negotiating table assured us at midnight before the day of debate that they would settle for nothing less than the total removal of the flag. On the following day, however, they called the state NAACP officers who present to hear the debate into the Senate cloakroom and told us that they'd reluctantly agreed to the "compromise."

Sen. McConnell's raging response misses the point of the sanctions - the removal of the flag from all "places of sovereignty." He notes that the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi incorporate the Confederate flag. Both, however, are the flags of existing sovereign states, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association also prohibits championship events in Mississippi. He notes that the Confederate flag flies over North Carolina's State House on selected days of historical significance, but that display is not continual. He notes that Confederate flags are displayed in proximity to the Confederate monument on the grounds of Alabama's State House. That monument, however, is on the side of that building. South Carolina's present placement of the flag is behind the Confederate Memorial in front of our State House.

The front of any public building - from a State House to a school - should be reserved for the flags of existing sovereign governmental entities. There is, thankfully, no present existing sovereign Confederate States of America - they lost the war, the Confederacy is a part of our state's history, and until the flag is moved to a historical context, the NAACP sanctions will continue.

Contrary to Sen. McConnell's assertion, the NAACP does not thrive on controversy and has not sought to eradicate Southern history. Had we done so, then the sanctions would have included the State House monuments to Gov. Benjamin Tillman, a genocidal racist, and Dr. Marion Sims, whose advances in gynecology resulted from brutal experiments on black women. Our demand and desire is that the Confederate flag be displayed in a clear and unquestionably historical context, and many fair-minded people and organizations share in and support our position.

The NAACP will continue in our century-old quest for equity and justice, and will not relent in this instance until the prominent symbol of injustice in question is displayed in not a sovereign, but a historical context. The quid pro quo erection of a single State House monument that gives a nod to African-American history but bears no names of those who made history does not change our position. We seek progress, not placation. When our state does the right thing, then all South Carolinians can commemorate our history and, I hope, remember - at a time times when racial prejudice is again on the rise nationally - not to repeat that history.

Rev. Darby is senior pastor at Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

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