The political fight over the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina is hardly new. Fifteen years ago, in the midst of a contentious Republican presidential primary, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the flag a ”symbol of racism and slavery”; then he changed his mind and said it’s a ”symbol of heritage”; and then he reversed course again, saying the flag should be brought down.
Yesterday, following the massacre in Charleston, the debate that never ended rose to the surface. The Post and Courier reported that the Confederate flag, protected by state law, continued to fly “at its full height” at the South Carolina Statehouse, even after the U.S. and South Carolina flags were lowered in honor of the slayings. [Update: see below.]
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ indictment at The Atlantic rings true.
Moral cowardice requires choice and action. It demands that its adherents repeatedly look away, that they favor the fanciful over the plain, myth over history, the dream over the real. Here is another choice.Take down the flag. Take it down now.Put it in a museum. Inscribe beneath it the years 1861-2015. Move forward. Abandon this charlatanism. Drive out this cult of death and chains. Save your lovely souls. Move forward. Do it now.
In all likelihood, state officials will ignore this sound advice, literally adding insult to injury. But before we move on, dejected and discouraged, I wanted to flag an interesting exchange that happened live last night between msnbc’s Chris Hayes and Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.).
If you missed it, Chris, reporting live from Charleston, asked Sanford, a former governor, about the future:
HAYES: Can you see that flag coming down in your lifetime? Are your grandkids, in some future iteration, going to be standing here with some future iteration of a news man, having this conversation about that symbol flying over that state capitol.SANFORD: That, I don’t know.
And all things considered, I suspect Sanford’s response was sincere. He doesn’t know and neither do any of us.
But it’s a question that deserves serious consideration. If that flag won’t come down now, when will be the right time? How long must it fly? Are its defenders prepared to argue that the South Carolina Statehouse must honor the Confederate battle flag indefinitely?
Is it their genuine expectation that, a century from now, this symbol will deserve the same reverence its proponents give it today? How about two centuries? Three?
Will there ever be an expiration date that allows South Carolina, as Coates put it, to “move forward”?
Update: The Washington Post reported, “A further obstacle to critics of the Confederate flag: It’s affixed to the pole, and can’t come down unless someone gets up there and pulls it down – which would be illegal anyway. ‘The flag is part of a Confederate War Memorial, and is not on a pulley system, so it cannot be lowered, only removed,’ Raycom Media reporter Will Wilson tweeted.” The Huffington Post added that the flag “is held in place by a padlock.”
It’s important detail, of course, but the broader point remains the same. It’s up to state policymakers to choose to act deliberately on this issue, changing state law as needed.