FOR NEARLY A quarter century, the Confederate flag towered over our government and our politics.
Republicans used it to help drum up votes to take control of the House in 1994, and four years later Republican Gov. David Beasley was kicked out of office after he called for its removal from the State House. Once it was relocated to our front lawn in an uneasy compromise two years later, no elected official dared question it for more than a decade. In 2010, Nikki Haley’s pledge of fealty to the self-appointed neo-Confederate guardians of the banner helped her claw her way through a tough primary field to win her party’s nomination for governor.
Now suddenly, in a blink of an eye, it is gone. Banished by legislative action in the wee hours of Thursday, gubernatorial signature 15 hours later and finally by members of the Highway Patrol honor guard Friday morning. Folded and furled and escorted to the Confederate Relic Room, where it will join flags that flew over battles of bullets instead of words.
The flag that has loomed so large over our politics survived just 23 days after a white supremacist massacred the pastor and eight members of his flock as they studied the Bible at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, just 21 days after relatives of the slain innocents faced the killer and extended their forgiveness, 20 days after a crowd of 1,500 gathered nearly spontaneously on the State House grounds to demand its removal, 18 days after Gov. Haley brought together the state’s political and business leaders to call for its removal. It would have come down sooner if not for scheduling conflicts surrounding the Independence Day holiday.
So now what?
More than monuments
The flag’s staunchest defenders warn in increasingly shrill tones that monuments will tumble, history will be buried and Southern “heritage” will be scrubbed from the face of the earth. It would be kind to call them delusional. More accurate to call them, at least their leaders, opportunistic.
The only monument in our state that might be endangered is not to a Confederate hero but to a post-Reconstruction villain, a vicious racist as seen not just through the lens of history but in his own day. And the most our lawmakers are likely to do with his imposing statue on the State House grounds is to add a plaque that explains how he bragged of participating in lynchings and gave speeches around the country inciting others to do likewise.
What’s next is not erasing our history. It is transforming our future.
Truth be told, I’m not sure I really believed we’d ever resolve this issue, because resolving it always meant more than simply eliminating the flag’s in-your-face display. It meant that our elected leaders had decided, across party and racial lines, that they wanted to move the flag off of our Sate House grounds.
After watching for a quarter century as our political parties morphed from slightly left of center and slightly right of center to black and white (and farther and farther removed from center), the only way I could imagine that consensus developing was in the extremely unlikely event that Democrats retook control of the Legislature, and there remained enough moderate Republicans to achieve some semblance of bipartisanship and something more than a simple majority of support.
I couldn’t imagine changed hearts.
I obviously didn’t have enough faith. Because that is exactly what brought the Confederate flag off of our State House grounds: changed hearts. Hearts that allowed so many South Carolinians to recognize the pain that the flag caused to every black person who saw it flying at the seat of our government, to care that it was causing that pain, and to do something about it.
This was so clearly about grace. This new sight that so very many South Carolinians have been given so clearly was a gift from God, delivered to us through the families of the Emanuel nine. We no more deserved that grace than the white supremacist who ripped apart their lives, but that’s what makes it grace, and now we have it.
So what will we do with that grace? What’s next?
Through others’ eyes
When she signed the bill into law Thursday afternoon, Gov. Haley talked about the compassion that we all felt after the massacre, and how that compassion transformed our lawmakers. “We saw members start to see what it was like to be in each others’ shoes, start to see what it felt like,” she said. “We heard about the true honor of heritage and tradition. We heard about the true pain that many had felt, and we took the time to understand.”
Simply retiring the flag gives our state the ability to finally and fully turn our attention to building a better future. The new ability to “see what is it like to be in each others’ shoes,” the new willingness to understand those who are different — these are the tools that we use for that construction.
Seeing the world through others’ eyes doesn’t mean that the lions will lie down with the lambs — or that Republicans and Democrats will cease their squabbling. Nor should it.
Republicans and Democrats have different values and different priorities. Sometimes Republicans are completely wrong; sometimes Democrats are completely wrong. More often, both parties have some good ideas that could be improved by working together rather than playing to defeat the other “team,” by realizing “what it was like to be in each others’ shoes,” by taking “the time to understand.”
The flag has been too important to our politics because race has been too important to our politics. Consciously or not — and I believe it has been conscious and willful in some cases, unconscious in others — Republicans have pursued policies that disproportionately injure black people, and rejected policies that would offer a helping hand to those who need it most, and who in our state disproportionately are black. Consciously or not — and again, I believe there are examples of both — Democrats have been too quick to assume deliberate racial motives on the part of Republicans.
We can’t expect change from those who have set out to profit politically from the politics of race — unless their hearts have been changed. And we saw during the House debate that a significant minority of our representatives have not undergone this transformation.
But for those who had not recognized the racial implications of their actions, and for those who had not been willing to recognize that race is not always the motivation, this new-found willingness to listen to others and recognize what it’s like “to be in each others’ shoes” can result in a different approach to politics and to government. An approach that is based not on race or partisanship but on making South Carolina a better place for us all.
What’s next is encouraging and nurturing that change, making it permanent. If we can do that … well, if we can do that, then we we can do anything we set our minds to do.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.