The midterms are only weeks away and the drama of local and state elections are reaching a fevered pitch. One of my favorite moments this week happened in South Carolina when Democratic gubernatorial challenger Vincent Sheheen suggested it was time to retire the Confederate flag that flies in front South Carolina state house, saying
“I believe it’s time that we retire the confederate flag to a place of respect, where the history of this great state can be told, and we all rally together under a flag that unites us all - the American flag - that looks towards the future, not the past.”
This is how incumbent Governor, Republican Nikki Haley responded:
“What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state. I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
Then she continued with this:
“But we really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian-American female governor. When we appointed the first African-American U.S. senator, that sent a huge message.”
That’s why my letter this week is to the Republican governor of South Carolina.
Dear Governor Haley,
It’s me, Melissa.
This is a fascinating moment in American history. As you highlighted in your debate this week, you are a woman, and a first-generation Indian-American.
And you appointed Senator Tim Scott, the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.
And, Scott’s opponent in next month’s election is also black, meaning that one of them will be the first African American to win a statewide office in South Carolina in 142 years.
Those facts are meaningful.
But they have little to do with whether the Confederate flag should fly on government land or whether we have “fixed all that.”
I am a Southern girl. I grew up with the Confederate flag prominently displayed all around me. I love Dukes of Hazard and the General Lee. And just last week I took the kids to the “Dixie Classic Fair.” Yeah, Nerdland, I know. I know.
But black Americans are, by and large, Southerners. Our roots, our stories, our lives, our struggles, our joys have a distinctly Southern flavor. Slavery and Jim Crow are part of our experience, but so are church picnics, HBCU football games and jazz music. There is no Black American history that is not deeply intertwined with Southern history. And as Southerners we have a complicated relationship to the ’ol stars and bars. We rarely paint it on our pick-ups but we do not automatically flinch and recoil when we see it.
But Governor Haley, you are not just a Southerner; you are a duly elected Governor in the United States of America.
And while those who served the Confederacy may have been honorable men and good soldiers doing the best they could with the choices they faced, the reality is the Confederate Flag, represents the ultimate act of treason. On December 20, 1860, your state, became the first to secede from the Union.
In April 1861, the attack on Fort Sumpter, in your state, ignited the Civil War that sought to tear this country apart.
Your state was the first to nullify - not only the law - but the very tie that binds us as Americans. Had your state prevailed we would no longer be a single nation, but just a great experiment dashed on the shores of slavery and states’ rights. If your state had won, the Confederate flag would rightly fly over the state house and Jefferson Davis would be on your dollar bill.
But this is not what happened. Four bloody years of struggle and loss and brutality ultimately ensured that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, did not perish from the earth.
And so to remember that we are one nation-indivisible – we fly the flag of our union. We display our fifty stars as a reminder that each state is woven into the fabric of our country.
To display the confederate flag is to suggest honor upon an act of treason and to suggest that it might have been just as well if our nation was rent apart.
And we haven’t fixed all that, yet, Governor. Indeed, some in your party have spent much of the past six years attempting to nullify federal law through resistance to the Affordable Care Act.
Governor Haley, it is extraordinary to see you, as a Southern woman of color, holding the highest office in South Carolina. But that flag is not solely or even mostly about race, it is about our collective history of struggle to remain united.
Even as you seek to hold onto office in your state it is worth remembering that you are a governor, in these United States. Stand under our flag. It is time to take the other one down.