IT’S BEEN dizzying to watch the national debate about things Confederate spin out of control. And for anyone who wants to see the Confederate flag removed from our State House grounds, it’s more than a little worrisome.
Here in South Carolina, we all need to take a deep breath and think seriously about what we want to accomplish, what we should accomplish, and what we can accomplish.
I have no affection for things Confederate, even though I have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, but I recognize, and we all ought to recognize, that there’s a difference between flags and monuments. Monuments are meant not just to honor, but also to remember; flags are meant to rally the troops, to incite. Flags, as so many have observed, are living, breathing things, not cold stone; as symbols, they invite us to attach our own meaning to them.
There’s also a difference between those people who merely owned slaves — which is to say, who were wealthy enough to own slaves — and those such as former Gov. Ben Tillman, who incited racial violence, long after the war was lost. There’s a difference between people who believed it was their duty to fight for their state, whatever the state’s motivation for fighting, and those who made the decision to secede from the Union in order to preserve the institution of slavery, as the delegates to South Carolina’s secession convention made clear they were doing.
Removing monuments, and even renaming things, should not be rushed into. It’s generally frowned upon by serious historians, because it encourages us to forget our history. And in the current debate, it could well be counter-productive.
Sen. John Courson was one of the Confederate flag’s most important defenders until he decided last month that it was time to retire it to a museum. When we talked two days after he joined Gov. Nikki Haley and other state leaders to call for its removal, the senator said the chances were good that it would be retired — as long as no one tried to complicate the issue with other issues. Like monuments. If the legislation gets loaded down with related matters, he said, all the delicate work that has been and still is being done could fall apart.
The fragility of the alliance for change is reflected in the common refrain from Confederate flag aficionados who have joined the call to remove the banner from its prominent position on the State House grounds: This must be all that is moved.
Meantime, the most powerful argument of the flag defenders who are still fighting to preserve the status quo is that it will not be all that is moved — that retiring the Confederate flag will begin a domino tumble that takes down monuments and renames buildings and roads and forts and any number of other public property that honors Confederate heroes.
It could be a legitimate concern in other states, where we’ve seen aggressive moves to take down monuments and revoke honors for notorious racists as well as people for whom the Confederacy was but one small part of a life of accomplishment and service. But what people in other states do with their flags and monuments is none of my business — just was what we in South Carolina do is none of their business. And certainly it’s not my business what products businesses choose to sell or not sell, promote or not promote; surely no one who believes that the free market always sorts things out as they should be sorted would question those decisions.
What is our business is what happens here in South Carolina, and it’s simply not credible to think that monuments will start tumbling after the flag is removed from the State House grounds.
I’m not aware of any Republicans in South Carolina who are calling to rename things Confederate or remove statues — even statues of our most vicious racist, Ben Tillman. And since Republicans have huge majorities in the House and the Senate, there’s simply no way that any changes can occur without their support. Indeed, it’s impossible for reminders of our past to be changed without the support of a lot of Republicans, along with Democrats.
That’s because of Section 10-1-165 of S.C. law, a sweeping provision that was passed in 2000 as part of the bill that relocated the Confederate flag from the State House dome to a monument on the grounds.
The law requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate before any “Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, War Between the States, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, Native American, or African-American History monuments or memorials erected on public property of the State or any of its political subdivisions may be relocated, removed, disturbed, or altered.” It extends the same two-thirds requirement to any “street, bridge, structure, park, preserve, reserve, or other public area of the State or any of its political subdivisions dedicated in memory of or named for any historic figure or historic event.”
I’m not crazy about this law, because it allows a third of either the House or the Senate to block the will of the majority; that’s anti-democratic and anti-republican. Worse, it applies not just to property owned by the state, but also to property owned by cities and counties — and to privately owned monuments that are located on government property; that’s an outrageous, but not uncommon, overreach on the part of our Legislature. But the law might be what saves the opponents of things Confederate from undermining their own efforts, and so for that I am grateful.
It’s possible that there are some monuments that need to be moved and even buildings and roads and schools that ought to be renamed. While it’s true that we shouldn’t try to rewrite history, it’s also true that we get to decide which parts of our history to celebrate, and we make that decision every day, by action or inaction.
But that’s not a debate that we should be having now. It’s not a debate that could even conceivably result in changes now. And the chance of its ever resulting in changes is extremely small.
Frankly, the people who want the flag retired need to stop talking about monuments. All they do is strengthen the arguments of those who want to keep the flag flying at the seat of our government.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.