FOR 54 YEARS, the state of South Carolina has proudly flown a flag at the seat of our government that signaled to a third of our population that their presence was not wanted, that they did not matter and that there was absolutely nothing they could do about it.
Today, that ends. Today, the Confederate battle flag that was hoisted atop the dome of the State House on the centennial of the Civil War and at the height of the civil rights movement, and relocated 15 years ago to a monument front and center on South Carolina’s front lawn, will be retired to a museum. It will be retired to the place it should have stayed, as it did for the first 100 years after the war ended.
Today, South Carolina begins a new era. It’s probably not the harmonious, we-can-all-just-get-along era that some had imagined. Certainly it’s not an era in which lawmakers stop playing partisan games or advancing legislation that they know will appeal to some constituents’ racial prejudices. But it is an era in which our government no longer sends such a clear message to black people that this is not their state too. One in which our state’s leaders finally acknowledge that, regardless of their motives, it is wrong to do things that cause pain to so many South Carolinians who have done nothing to deserve that pain. That doesn’t sound like much, and in many ways it is not, but for our state, it is a sea change.
It is terrible that it took the racist massacre of nine of our fellow citizens, and the amazing grace displayed by their loved ones, to open the hearts of so very many South Carolinians, and in so doing to allow them to see and recoil at the pain the flag causes African-Americans. But it is worth celebrating that hearts were opened, and that our elected leaders took what still is for many a political risk to remove at least that pain, that message of exclusion.
Our editorial board has always believed that it was important not only to remove the flag from the State House but to do it in the right way, and that is what our state is doing. We are not acting because outside groups forced us to do so — although they certainly tried; and our legislative leaders didn’t make a unilateral decision to put a compromised version of the flag removal on a “to-do” list and force their will through the House and Senate, as happened in the House 15 years ago.
As black lawmakers reminded their white colleagues during Wednesday’s marathon debate in the House, they weren’t the ones who brought up the flag after a white supremacist who loved to drape himself in it massacred the innocents at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was 1,500 people, most white, who turned out for a rally thrown together by white people who brought this up; it was business leaders and civic and religious leaders and white Republican legislators and Gov. Haley who brought this up. This happened because people looked with new hearts and eyes and minds on the flag and on their fellow citizens and decided that it must happen.
Unlike the Senate debate, which was marred only by a single senator who has made of himself a pariah, the House debate was at times heated, and far too much time was devoted to the spurious argument that removing a flag that didn’t fly for 100 years would somehow dishonor Confederate soldiers — soldiers who were, are and ever shall be honored by the most prominent monument on the State House grounds. But while those who fancied themselves defenders of an endangered heritage did the most talking, they were a distinct minority; most of the lawmakers who spoke talked about grace, about not deliberately hurting so very many South Carolinians.
And in the end, as in the Senate, nearly everyone in the House came together and voted to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State House — black and white, Republican and Democrat, descendents of Confederate soldiers and civilian leaders alongside descendents of slaves.
Our state is better for their action. We are better for their action.