South Carolinians, like many residents of formerly Confederate states, claim that the Stars and Bars represents "heritage not hate," a defense frequently cited. But what, in fact, is that heritage?
Reaching back to the Eighteenth Century, South Carolina carried the distinction of being the first of the thirteen colonies to experience a black majority, where slaves outnumbered their white masters. The results were three fold: a major slave revolt in 1739, the Stono Rebellion, the first on this scale in North America; a tightening of the slave codes so that they were the stiffest of any in the slaveholding area; and a longstanding racial tension, engrained into local culture. Dylann Roof apparently chose Charleston because it "at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country."
This legacy exploded a century later. As crisis built, South Carolina became known, more than any other, as the "firebrand" state, the most committed and aggressive of any in defending slavery, the states' right, above all others, that caused the South to secede. It was not an accident of history that the opening shots fired in the Civil War, the place where Southerners felt they had to act violently, was at Fort Sumter, Carolina.
In the subsequent era of segregation, one of South Carolina's greatest statesmen was Pitchfork Ben Tillman, governor and then U.S. Senator from 1895 to 1918. Tillman started as a defender of poor white farmers during the Populist revolt. Having failed in that crusade, he turned to abject racism, explaining simply that the only two fates possible for African Americans were domination or extermination. These South Carolina residents, while clearly inferior to the white man, were not baboons, though some were "so near akin to the monkey that scientists are yet looking for the missing link." Playing the most vile race card of them all, interracial sex, Tillman declared, "I have three daughters, but, so help me God, I had rather find either one of them killed by a tiger or a bear [and die a virgin] than to have her crawl to me and tell me the horrid story that she had been robbed of the jewel of her womanhood by a black fiend."
In more recent years, it was Joe Wilson, U.S. Congressman for South Carolina's 2nd District, who surpassed even his most fervent Republican colleagues in disrespect for a black president, when he interrupted Barack Obama's 2009 speech to yell, "You lie!"
Based on the evidence, the "heritage" this flag stands for is one of continued racism. It is time, therefore, for South Carolina and the South to do what other entities, places like South Africa and Germany, have done to move beyond a troubled past. It is essential that Southerners recognize and rebuff what their ancestors did, something they claim they can never do.
Why not? Their forefathers, for generations, engaged in practices, using the mildest language possible, that was dishonorable. And the other countries cited did exactly that, admitting fully and publicly that part of their heritage was wrong, and must be disowned. The South has never done that. During the debate that led to the compromise that put the Confederate flag on state ground in 1998, Rick Quinn, majority leader of the state House of Representatives called it an "honorable symbol" despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary. Today, blacks and whites walk down streets named for Confederate leaders, military and political. That is like having German citizens, both Gentile and Jew, traverse boulevards named Goering or Goebbels. Germans have acknowledged what they did and rejected that past. The South has done neither.
I'm not looking for an apology from modern day Southerners, who are part of a far better, far more open society. But until they recognize that their ancestors committed something wrong, that in that region the heritage is in fact tainted, the Confederate flag will continue to fly in a state capitol. Kay Hightower, a member of Emmanuel AME told an LA Times reporter, "People need to take ownership of all the history. And that's a painful thing to do." But it is what's necessary if we're ever going to get past this.
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