Following the tragic events in Charleston, South Carolina, it is difficult to disagree with President Obama’s moving and powerful obituary at the funeral for one of the victims, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, that it was time to take the flag down. However, the public furore over the use of the Confederate flag has also demonstrated how quickly traumatic events can cause us to forget even the recent past.
The killings conducted by Dylann Roof on 17th June shocked people around the world. Perhaps even more surprising were the responses of family members of the victims that instantly forgave the killer. The images of Roof with the Confederate flag that have dominated the Internet since the killings have justifiably sparked an important debate over its use. To most observers, these pictures make the meaning of the flag clear: white supremacy, racism, and the South. Many – particularly African Americans – rightly share this view. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s, the flag came to symbolize mass resistance of white Southerners to the federal imposition of anti-segregation laws. From this point of view, it seems fairly evident that it is time the flag came down. The image of the black filmmaker Bree Newsome climbing the flagpole of the South Carolina state capitol building to remove it will almost certainly becoming an iconic image. Many American politicians, even those previously defenders of the flag as a symbol of Southern heritage and identity, have called for it to be removed (although this seems to be political posturing by many Southern politicians). Many Southern states are now debating whether to remove it from their state flags. To many Americans, most African-Americans and non-Americans, removing the flag will be a symbol of progress. However, there are a few issues that as historians we must address.
First of all, the debate around the removal of the flag sounds much like treating the symptoms rather than the disease. While this would be an important symbolic gesture, and long overdue, we have to be realistic and acknowledge that removing the flag will not eradicate racism. Unfortunately, it may also cause as much resentment as keeping it. One only need to look at the plans of South Carolina’s Klu Klux Klan to have a pro-flag rally, or to consider the many other Dylann Roof’s that are out there. There are also those that genuinely believe in the flag as a symbol of heritage and identity which is not racist. There are even black groups that have adopted and adapted the flag to symbolize a new Southern identity, such as the creators of NuSouth Apparel. The historian John M. Coski reminds of the historical origins of the flag, which lay in differentiating Southern troops from Union forces in the Civil War, but also the various different meanings the flag has held since then. Discussion on the flag are rightly and understandably politically charged, but in order to understand the various meanings it holds to individuals and communities in the 21st century, we must look to the past. That being said, whether it’s political posturing or anti-racist activism, it is clear that it’s time for the flag to come down.
Secondly, one of the frustrating elements of the debate over the flag has been the fact that it has revived the old myth that the South remains the home of American racism, that it has not moved on from the Civil Rights movement. While racism certainly still exists in the South, history, as well as the events of the last twelve months remind us that racism has never really been determined geographically. It exists everywhere, and it manifests itself differently in different places. Finally, the spree of newspaper articles, news stories and blog posts on the Confederate flag have worked as a smokescreen for one of the larger debates that characterises and plagues American life – guns. The fact remains that Roof was able to obtain a gun very easily, and one wonders at what point America will begin to tackle this issue.