Opinion Extra

Darby: Transform flag unity into improvements for SC

Spectators cheer as an honor guard from removes the Confederate battle flag from the SC State House grounds.
Spectators cheer as an honor guard from removes the Confederate battle flag from the SC State House grounds. AP

I recently had the pleasure of walking onto the State House grounds and seeing a long-awaited and welcome sight: no Confederate flag, pole or protective fence behind the Confederate Soldier Monument. I’ve also noted that the majority of The State’s letters to the editor in the wake of the flag’s removal supported that unifying act.

The few letters in opposition simply rehashed old and easily rebutted arguments — that the flag was a matter of heritage and not hate, that most of the soldiers didn’t own slaves, that the Civil War was about states’ rights and that mysterious and unrecorded hordes of black men fought for the Confederacy.

I won’t waste time repeating the rebuttals to those assertions that I’ve made in many columns over the past 20 years. I’d instead like to focus on what we should do now since, as one disgruntled flag supporter said in his letter, “The war is over.”

That flag supporter said more than he probably intended to say. Regardless of all of the “heritage” arguments, many flag supporters obviously considered themselves to be fighting a Civil War of words 150 years after the shooting war ended. Now that the most visible symbol of that war and of resistance to progress has been retired — now that we can hope that the war is over — what’s next?

Since symbols do matter, I hope that we embrace the symbolism of the flag’s retirement to a historical context and explore ways and means of taking South Carolina in a new and positive direction.

Some of that needs to happen in the political arena. The flag’s removal was a victory for those who put the principle of unity and mutual respect above the politics of division — and some of those who supported the flag’s removal were surprising. I’d encourage them to reflect on how they came together and took expeditious action in the wake of a tragedy and consider other possibilities for common ground on issues that were symbolized by the flag’s presence.

Too many of our children still languish in woefully and chronically underfunded public schools. Perhaps if common ground were found, we could see that every public school is a quality school and that our children and their families have real “choices” and not illusory ones.

Too many parts of our state along the I-95 corridor are woefully lacking in the infrastructure needed to attract industries that bring good jobs. Many parents in Hampton Country have to board buses at dawn and return to their families at dusk after working in low-paying tourism-related jobs along the coast. Perhaps if common ground were found, the southeastern part of our state could have schools that attract businesses and those bus-riding parents could find jobs locally and play a stronger role in their children’s educational well-being.

The possibility of finding common ground in public education and economic development, as well as in other areas ranging from equitable law enforcement to quality housing, exists if those who set public policy approach those problems with a sense of bipartisan urgency, true cooperation and a commitment to equity for all citizens.

Those in elected office have work to do, but all of us have roles to play. Houses of faith, those in the private and public sectors and others across the community came together in response to a racially tinged tragedy. If we maintain and build on that sense of togetherness and talk with each other rather than at each other, we can build new, trusting relationships that enable us to do new things in new ways. We can also change the political playing field, so that those who play the politics of division will no longer be elected to office.

As a lifelong resident of South Carolina, I readily admit to my limited expectations. I’ve seen us come together for other “Kumbaya” moments in catastrophic times, only to retreat to our comfortable societal tents when the urgency is passed. If we can break that trend and make the symbolism of the flag’s retirement a catalyst for unity, then every day will indeed be “a great day in South Carolina.”

The Rev. Darby is presiding elder of the Beaufort District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; contact him at josephdarby@bellsouth.net.