One result of the heinous murders at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston last week has been a re-igniting of the debate over the Confederate battle flag at the state capitol in Columbia. We thought that debate had been settled in 2000, when the flag was removed from the capitol dome and placed at a Confederate memorial nearby.
But the Charleston murders and a photo of the accused killer holding a Confederate battle flag had sparked the controversy again. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, has strongly recommended ridding the capitol grounds of the flag followed 150 years ago by Confederate troops. This year's GOP candidates have mostly danced around the renewed controversy.
It should be obvious to everyone that there is no cause-and-effect between the flag in Columbia and the murders in Charleston. But there is a link between yahoos who wave the obsolete flag and racism. Southern secession was all about slavery, and about state sovereignty and northern industrial dominance — all factors that worried the southern aristocracy. That line of thinking, as well as the self-delusion that southern agrarian life was purer and better than industrial capitalism, was defeated in four years of bleeding and destruction.
The flag on the capitol grounds is different from the statue of Silent Sam at Chapel Hill (dedicated to UNC students and alumni who died in the war) and the scores of similar statues on courthouse grounds across the South. The statues are memorials to men who died in defense of their homes and families and reminders of the devastating toll the war took on every family in the South and most families in the North. Racism was a big factor in the war, but few of the front-line soldiers of the Confederacy would have given their lives for racism, and only a small minority of Confederate soldiers owned slaves.
But the flying of a battle flag of the Confederacy on the state capitol grounds makes no sense, especially knowing that that very flag has been misappropriated by hate groups. If it is the Confederacy one wants to memorialize, the national flags of the Confederacy would be more appropriate and less controversial.
Removing the battle flag from its esteemed site in Columbia would make a statement that the Civil War is over, and the state of South Carolina honors all of its citizens, those who still lament the sacrifice of some great-great-great grandfather and those who lament the enslavement of their ancestors. Squeamish politicians are right — the flag is a state issue. The state should recognize the unnecessary divisiveness of the flag and remove it.