THE BLOG

Removing Confederate Flags Must Be the Beginning, Not the End

06/26/2015 10:26 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

The racially-motivated murder of nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina has, in less than a week, sparked multi-state protests to remove the Confederate battle flag from not only the state capitol grounds in South Carolina and Alabama but from license plates in Virginia. Walmart, Sears and Ebay have announced that they will no longer carry merchandise with the flag on it. The Confederate battle flag, representing as it does a civil war to preserve slavery and massive resistance to civil rights, has too often been a symbol of racial hatred and used as an incitement to violence. It has no place as a state-sanctioned symbol anywhere today.

At the same time, efforts to remove the flag should be the beginning, not the end, of the important work to follow the Charleston tragedy. When the flags are gone, relegated as they should be to museums and the history books, much of the racial animosity and social injustice associated with them will still be with us. We will have excised a visible source of pain, but the wound will not have healed. As much as the flag's removal will honor the sacrifice of those murdered in Charleston, they deserve more.

We cannot and should not declare victory when the flags come down. It is easy to attack and remove a prominent symbol. It is much harder to remove the emotional and practical effects of the racial hatred and injustice that symbol represents. That is the work we owe to the slain. That is the work we also owe to ourselves and our children.

Some of the families of those murdered at Emanuel have shown us the way with their expressions of forgiveness and love. Without those two acts, not much else that is positive will happen. It is time for all of us, including individuals and governments who honor the Confederate flag, to exhibit a similar magnanimity. We must apologize to the African American community for the sin of slavery and the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws that replaced it.

It is also time for those who hate the Confederate battle flag to acknowledge that most of those who served under it did so honorably. We should hate America's participation in slavery. We should despise those in and out of the Confederate uniform who committed atrocities against both slaves and freedmen. But we should not hate all who fought under the Confederate banner any more than we hate all those soldiers who fought bravely in any of our wars in which innocents were killed. It is possible to see nobility among Confederate soldiers even if their cause was ignoble. The effort to remove the Confederate battle flag must not be associated, as is already happening, with the defacement of statues and monuments honoring the Confederate dead. When this happens, the racial hatred that Dylann Roof sought to stoke increases. He does not deserve even this minimal victory.

Reconciliation must be our first step. It needs to go beyond apologies to embrace joint dialogue and joint projects aimed at bringing together races and communities. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that sin is separation. For too long, Americans have been separated from each other. We need to reach out to each other in acts of brotherhood.

Restitution must be our second step. We must work much harder to eliminate the racial disparities that still plague us in areas as diverse as educational attainment, employment, housing, health, income and the administration of justice. Many fear that apologies mean monetary reparations, but that is neither implied nor required. Restitution does require, however, efforts to set things right. As the past fifty years have demonstrated, laws against discrimination are not enough. Neither have the many projects supported through governmental, non-profit and faith-based auspices been enough. Too many of our African American citizens are still left behind due to the lingering effects of slavery and its aftermath on their living conditions and their psyches. Removing flags will not remove the blight that remains in too many of their lives.

America was built not just by the founders but by their enslaved workers. America's future must be built by all of us as well, but this time with the mutual respect and love without which we will have more Charlestons. That is the legacy we must leave for the Emanuel Nine. Let's not just lower the stars and bars. Let's also raise the banner of racial harmony and social justice.