South Carolina is one of only two states that display the Confederate flag on its statehouse grounds. It has done so for over 50 years, with pride and conviction. But the murder of nine African-Americans by an apparent white supremacist, has prompted renewed calls in Charleston to finally remove it.
South Carolina State Rep. Bakari Sellers told msnbc’s Thomas Roberts Friday that one the first things the legislature can do in response to the tragedy would be “to take the Confederate flag down-a symbol of so much despair.”
But where Sellers sees despair, a majority of white Americans see a region’s honor.
An NBC News online survey released Friday morning found that 57% of white Americans view the Confederate flag as a symbol of southern pride, while 81% of black Americans understand it as a symbol of racism.
The survey, conducted by Survey Monkey, was carried out from June 3 to June 5, before the Charleston attack.
The success of this re-branding is not based in any actual ambiguity about what the flag was created to represent. Rather, it reflects a nation’s unwillingness to take ownership of its white supremacist past.
Those who believe the Battle Flag of the Confederacy is not a symbol of racial hatred lean on one of two arguments. The first is that the cause it represented wasn’t launched to maintain the enslavement of black people, but the freedom of the states. The second is that regardless of what it was initially intended to represent, it is now a symbol of a region’s heritage, and the sacrifice of those who were made to defend it.
The men who created the Confederate flag were quite explicit about the nature of the cause it was made to represent.
The phrase “state’s rights” appears nowhere in South Carolina’s declaration of secession. The word “slave” appears 18 times. The document uses the phrase “slaveholding States” as a synonym for the states of the Confederacy, and justifies secession on the grounds that white southerners' constitutional right to hold dark-skinned human beings as property would be threatened by remaining in the union.
As Ta Nehisi-Coates observed in his denunciation of the flag, the centrality of slavery to the southern cause is presented even more starkly in a speech delivered by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens, weeks before the firing on Fort Sumpter: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition.”
According to historian Eric Foner, at the time of the Civil War, the slaves of the South were “more valuable than all the nation’s banks, railroads, and factories combined.” Basic reason dictates that the southern elite would have been more concerned with protecting this vast treasure than an abstract principal of good governance. And where the right to hold slaves and the right to state sovereignty were in conflict, the Confederacy came down on the side of the former; its constitution prohibited all member states from abolishing slavery.
Once the appeal to a noble cause is surrendered, supporters of the Confederate flag are left to defend it as a commemoration of history, and of the common soldier, who did not have any control over the war’s inception, but merely defended his place of birth.
That was the line taken by former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell when he declared April “Confederate History Month” in 2010. Among the justifications for the month offered in its establishing proclamation was the following: “It is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth's shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War.”
On the surface, this appeal to commemorating sacrifice doesn’t require taking a distorted view of the Confederacy’s founding purpose. But such an appeal is only palatable if its actual founding purpose is obscured.
Germany doesn’t fly the Nazi flag in front of its capital to honor all those Nazi soldiers who weren’t personally anti-Semitic, but courageously carried out the orders they were given. They don’t do this because, as a society, they have accepted that Nazism was a great evil. And having accepted this, they recognize that sacrificing one’s life to defend your homeland’s evil order is not an honorable pursuit; it is a tragic one.
If the southern states wished to remember their Confederate history rather than to revise it, they wouldn’t display their former flag on license plates or statehouse lawns, but in an exhibit at a museum for the victims of American white supremacy.
The morning after the nightmare in Charleston, President Obama recalled the memory of four of those victims. He recited these lines, first delivered by Martin Luther King in the wake of the Birmingham Church Bombing, in which the reverend sought to channel the voices of the four girls who were killed: “They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely with who murdered them but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.
Coates argues that Dylann Storm Roof, who opened fire Wednesday night inside the Charleston church, understood the true nature of the Confederacy better than his kin and that he “honored his flag in exactly the manner it always demanded—with human sacrifice.”
The good people of South Carolina are not broken in the way that Roof is. They are revolted by his crime, and when they look at the stars and bars they do not see the flag that he saw. But they must. Because until they do, they will concern themselves merely with Dylann Roof, and not the system, way of life, and philosophy that produced him.