Yes, it’s a symbol. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. That is why it matters.
Within hours of Gov. Nikki Haley calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol in Columbia, Wal-Mart announced that it would stop selling articles with that symbol on it. The Republican Speaker of the Mississippi House said it was time to change the state flag that contains it. Amazon and NASCAR have turned against it. The acknowledgement that it deserves no place of honor may be contagious.
But we should not—cannot—be satisfied with the removal of the symbol. We also have a responsibility to combat the lie it represents.
While Gov. Haley’s decision to support removing the flag is undeniably progress, the way she and other elected officials couch their new-found sensitivity to the insult this flag has always been to black citizens is troubling.
In her statement, Haley said: “For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble. Traditions of history, of heritage, and of ancestry. At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past." There is room for both views, she said: “We do not need to declare a winner and a loser."
That is where she is wrong. We do need to declare something: the truth wins and the lie loses. Leadership—true leadership—does not create false equivalencies such as this. Both views, she said, are reasonable. They are not. One is in line with historical reality, while the other is the product of historical self-delusion.
Symbols can be tricky. Meaning can vary from person to person. But we’re not talking about a piece of abstract art in this case. We are talking about a symbol of a specific historical entity. I cannot simply declare that, for me personally, the Confederate battle flag represents say, abolitionism. It was a flag under which men fought against the armies of the United States government, in defense of a government that had as its central tenet the preservation of slavery. That is not up for discussion or debate. (Ta-Nehisi Coates has an exhaustive collection of Confederate leaders saying so, here.)
In 1948, Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats waved it to show their opposition to President Truman’s civil rights plank in the Democratic platform. Throughout the civil rights movement, segregationists flew it to show their devotion to Jim Crow and their rejection of racial equality. Rabid segregations waved it in the faces of civil rights protesters, and Gov. George Wallace of “segregation now, segregation forever” infamy proudly stood in front of it. People who defiantly shoved that flag in the face of people marching for racial equality still walk among us.
In each of those instances, it represented a willingness to fight to maintain white supremacy.
The reality that many people refuse to acknowledge those facts does not change them.
Those who still openly defend that flag are, fortunately, diminishing in number. But the near universal meaning people attributed to it in the past, we’re still asked to believe, is not the “real” meaning for its supporters now. Now we are told the murderer “hijacked” the Confederate battle flag. It’s not about slavery or segregation now, it’s about “southern pride.”
What does that term mean? One of the murderer’s friends recalled: “I never heard him say anything, but just he had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say…. He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that.” For this friend, making racist jokes was a sign of “southern pride.” Racism is only serious, it seems, when it leads to actual violence. When it’s jokes and racial epithets, it’s “southern pride.”
Even if we allow that today most white southerners would not define “southern pride” that way, when one associates “southern pride” with a flag that the overwhelming majority of black southerners find offensive, there is a damning, unstated admission: their “south” is, of course, a white south. It is not the south of slaves and their descendants. They were denied their humanity under slavery, they were denied their rights under segregation, and they are denied their southern identity by this definition of “southern pride.”
Haley’s remarks say that the “southern pride” view is worthy of respect. It is not. Only by denying the historical reality of how that flag has been used—not by the one or the few, but by the many—can one view it as representing anything “noble.” It is that kind of denialism that allowed the murderer to believe that the flag called for his hateful violence. It has promoted violence in the name of white supremacy throughout its history, but it has persisted in our culture under the guise of a harmless “southern pride.” The murderer did not hijack it, he did not “misappropriate” it. He made manifest--in the ugliest, most awful way--what it has always meant.
He tore the disguise off so utterly that even many of the willfully blind could not help but see.
That will be why the flag comes down.
No one who has dodged this issue in the past, or openly been on what is now clearly the wrong side of it, wants to have to admit having been wrong. But some flag supporters have. The former radio host and speech writer known as the “Southern Avenger” recently wrote: “I was wrong. That flag is always about race.” That’s the kind of honest reckoning with the past that we need.
Most politicians, however, present this act of removal not so much as a change of opinion but as a change of circumstances. They are beneficently going above and beyond due to the extreme circumstances created by this event. But this awful event did not really create new circumstances. It simply made undeniable what has always been true. It has shamed at least some people. They know what that flag means. But they still continue to indulge the fantasies of those who insist it is only about “southern pride,” and tell them that their point of view is a perfectly legitimate one.
There is a price to be paid for indulging a lie.
For 150 years, this nation has failed to recognize fully what Frederick Douglass rightly identified in 1878 as the central truth of the Civil War: “There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget.”
The nation’s willingness to indulge the “Lost Cause” mythology of the defeated Confederates is one of the reasons that 150 years later this mass murderer had no problem finding a false version of history (adhered to by many people beyond the Council of Conservative Citizens and the Sons of Confederate Veterans) that supported his vile racism.
Taking down the Confederate battle flag is the right thing to do—but not just because it stands in the way of unity at a time of bereavement. It should come down because it represents a pernicious lie: that the south worth honoring is a white supremacist one. Taking it down while indulging the lie is still progress. But it nonetheless avoids the hard truths that need to be spoken.
The cause of the Confederacy was not “noble.” The cause of the segregationists was not “noble.” Neither deserves any honor or reverence.
There is a right side and a wrong side in the Confederate flag debate which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget.