Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Bring down the flag, keep us together

WOrkers hang a banner from a business near the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
WOrkers hang a banner from a business near the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. AP

THE TASK OUR Legislature faces this week is as simple and easy and as complex and difficult as any it has faced. It might be more important than anything it has done in living memory.

If it succeeds, it can transform our politics and our government and our state — in much the same way that the hearts and minds of so many South Carolinians have been transformed in the aftermath of the unimaginable slaughter at Emanuel A.M.E. Church and the amazing display of forgiveness that followed.

What has now become a simple and easy task is one that was too contentious even to consider just three weeks ago: to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.

The legislation we need is as straightforward as it sounds. We do not need to replace the flag with some other Confederate banner, or even our state flag. We do not need to create a circle of all the flags that ever flew over the State House, or erect a flag monument or display the flag under glass inside the State House, or hold a referendum. We simply need to relocate the flag from the Confederate Soldier Monument on South Carolina’s front lawn to the State Museum.

As so many South Carolinians have come to recognize since the massacre, removing the flag removes a painful reminder of repression and degradation and “otherness” that its presence in the place where our laws are made telegraphed daily to a third of our population. Jesus told us, and before him God through Moses, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and this simple action is the very least we can do if we call ourselves Christian or Jewish or adherents of any other faith.

The right debate

But it is only the beginning. The complex and the difficult task before our Legislature involves the human heart. It involves how our lawmakers, how all of us, see ourselves and our neighbors, how we treat our neighbors, how we want to treat our neighbors.

To make a lasting difference, our legislators must engage in a respectful and uplifting debate that reflects the heartfelt emotions on all sides of this issue, and they must act with overwhelming unity.

Their debate needs to acknowledge that many South Carolinians revere the flag out of respect for ancestors who fought for what they saw as the defense of their state. It needs to acknowledge that the flag is deeply hurtful to many South Carolinians, because it has been used for a century and a half to accompany and illustrate the vilest racial hatred.

It needs finally to reflect and preserve this reality: Many people who love the flag for its connection to their ancestors or some vague notion of Southern heritage have come to understand that it causes greater pain to their brothers and sisters than any balm it provides to them.

This coming-together in harmony, putting aside a painful part of our past to move together toward a brighter future, has been the ultimate goal of our editorial board since we launched our crusade to remove the flag from its inappropriate position of sovereignty on the State House dome, back in 1994. Although we disliked moving the flag to the monument at the intersection of Columbia’s Main and Gervais streets, our biggest disappointment in that 2000 compromise was that there was no harmony, no unity, no meeting of the minds. The debate was contentious and divisive and acrimonious, both in public and in the Legislature.

Many people will scoff at the notion that there ever can be the coming-together that we envision, or that it can last even if it happens on this one occasion. Naive, they will say. Pollyanna, they will scoff. And certainly there are people who will never come to common ground, whose hearts will not be changed — from those who cling to the flag out of racial hatred to those who revile it but are more interested in the political advantage they can gain from bringing a fight than in bringing the people of South Carolina together.

But I suspect there are far fewer skeptics today than three weeks ago — because like me, and all of us, the one-time skeptics have been witness to a miracle.

A new normal

The grace that has emerged in the aftermath of a white supremacist’s brutal slaughter of the pastor and eight parishioners at Mother Emanuel has touched the people of South Carolina in a profound way. It has washed over us and made us new. Like so many others, I have watched with awe over these past 18 days as the mood and the opinions of the state collectively and of so very many individuals have been transformed.

Our task now is to embrace and internalize this new state of mind and heart, to turn it into the new normal rather than retreating into our segregated corners of indifference and even animosity.

When they meet on Monday to begin this historic debate about a flag, the ultimate task of our elected leaders is to reflect that same transformation, to lead by example, and in so doing to help all of us nurture the goodwill that we and they have experienced, across racial and partisan divides.

Their task is to help us become and remain people who see each other as fellow citizens, as neighbors, as brothers and sisters of a shared faith and so very many shared values — people who are willing to truly listen to the ideas of others, to see the world as others see it and, yes, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

This will not solve our many problems. It will not eliminate poverty or educate our children or create more and better jobs or fix our roads or improve our health.

But if we can cast aside the racial and ideological and partisan animosity that has defined us, then we can finally begin working together as one people, to try to solve our problems.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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