LAURIE OBVIOUSLY was not interested in winning gracefully.
Just a few hours after the House passed the bill to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds, she fired off an email full of indignation over my Thursday column, which talked about this great victory of the middle-ground — of people who neither hated the flag nor hated the people who hate the flag. Of people who believe the flag is about an honorable heritage but also recognize that it is deeply offensive and painful to many.
“So … you want to pretend that this bizarre clinging to the battle flag of the Confederate Nation, which was held high by the South’s treasonous ancestors against the United States, the same flag that was proudly flown by the KKK as they terrorized black people for decades, the same flag later revived in protest after the Civil Rights act passed and then again after the election of our first black President, is being held on to as a symbol of a proud heritage?” she wrote, adding a lot more question marks.
“No,” she continued. “Your middle ground is filled to the brim with people who don’t want to admit that their ancestors were WRONG. Filled with those who don’t want to own up to their irrational hatred and bigotry.”
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I’m telling you about Laurie not because she’s particularly important — something in her note makes me think she’s not even from South Carolina — but because I suspect there’s an uncomfortable number of people who feel like she does: more interested in rubbing it in than moving forward. Completely lacking in the charity that brought us to this point.
I’m telling you about Laurie because if you feel that way — even a smidgen — then you need to hear what I told her:
“Do I believe that people can delude themselves into believing that the traditions that were handed down to them from their parents and grandparents are pure and honest? Yes, I do. It’s called cognitive dissonance, and human beings do it all the time. I have every confidence that there is some area where you have done the same.
“You and I and others who have always wanted that flag down would never have succeeded if not for those people you dismiss.”
Please repeat that to yourselves if you’re feeling the least bit smug about all this: You and I and others who have always wanted that flag down would never have succeeded if not for those people you dismiss.
A lot of us have supported moving that flag for years, even decades. And when it finally happened, we provided support. But we did not make it happen.
The people who made this happen are the people who up until a month ago either supported keeping that flag on our state’s front lawn or didn’t care one way or another or (in the case of politicians) wanted it to come down but were afraid to say so.
The person who deserves the most credit is Gov. Nikki Haley. Were hearts changing even before she rounded up that incredible array of political leaders and held that incredible news conference to demand the flag’s removal? Certainly. Certainly in the public, and I suspect among elected officials.
But she helped change even more hearts — helped people focus on the pain and the grace of the people of Emanuel, and the pain caused by the flag. And imagine what would have happened if she had adopted the irrelevant “that flag didn’t kill anyone” rhetoric. How many legislators would have been willing to take on the flag without the cover she provided — without the tidal wave of shifting public opinion that she helped propel?
Imagine, for that matter, if Sen. John Courson and other highly respected flag supporters had dug in, and the opposition to moving the flag had been led by them rather than by an already marginalized senator who kept talking about all the black people who owned slaves and bemoaning the lack of respect for the founder of the KKK. But Sen. Courson was ready to remove the flag almost from the beginning. Even before he joined Gov. Haley at the news conference, he was strategizing on how best to manage the message that it was time to retire the flag.
A lot of people have been frustrated that House Speaker Jay Lucas did not speak out clearly in support of moving the flag until it was a fait accomplis. But imagine what would have happened if he had opposed the change. Imagine if it had been the speaker instead of the speaker pro tem who argued on the House floor that we needed to give something to the flag’s supporters in return for removing their flag — as if the massive Confederate Soldier Monument from which it flew weren’t government honor aplenty for anyone.
What those of us who always wanted the flag down contributed was self-restraint, and perhaps our own reciprocity of grace. Rep. James Smith told me that House Democrats had to keep reminding each other not to be baited into responding to the provocative rhetoric of flag supporters. After more than 10 hours, a few failed, ever so briefly, but by and large, they succeeded. As did business, civic and religious leaders who had been there all along.
It was a tactical decision, but for many, it also was borne of respect for the journey that so many have made these past four weeks. Even if we resent the fact that the cost was so high, we appreciate how difficult it has been — personally and politically — for many to come around.
At least for me, at first, the claim by politicians that they had never realized before how painful the Confederate flag is to black people felt terribly contrived. Sort of like the fiction that the flag had suddenly been appropriated by racists, as if it hadn’t been a central prop in all the protests against school integration, as if the lynch mobs hadn’t borne it aloft to celebrate their crimes, as if slavery had been a non-factor in that whole bloody war.
But if that’s what people needed to say in order to explain to themselves why it took the massacre of nine people for them to decide that our state needed to stop inflicting that pain, then I was willing to let them lie to themselves, and even to us. What mattered was that their hearts were in the right place now.
Then I heard Sen. Tom Davis explain, so very credibly, that the turning point for him came when he heard Sen. Darrell Jackson describe what it felt like to walk into the Senate chambers for the first time in 1994 and find the battle flag hanging over the dais.
“In abstract sense, I had always understood that the Confederate battle flag had been appropriated by hate groups,” Sen. Davis told The Post and Courier. “Hearing from somebody who you’re close to and hearing that very personal story, it makes the conception a reality. And really I think forces you to examine a little more fully what an appropriate response would be.”
There is one group of people who deserve credit above all for what has happened, even though I suspect they already wanted that flag down: the people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and especially the families of those nine martyrs who were massacred by a white supremacist while they studied the Bible.
Clementa Pinckney’s friends in the Senate will tell you that the late senator and pastor is responsible for turning them into people who are so full of grace and forgiveness. Perhaps so. But whether he was God’s instrument or he merely pastored a flock that God already had touched, the credit ultimately goes to God, who created these people of grace, to provide a lamp unto our feet, a light unto our path.
Once we recognize that, how in the world can we harbor ill feelings toward anyone who joined us on that path?
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.