There is a growing national consensus that the Confederate flag should come down everywhere, not just in South Carolina, where a demented racist killed nine people in a church Bible study session. People across the country now recognize that the flag should be relegated to the historical museums that tell the hideous story of slavery and the Confederacy’s bloody war to preserve it.
We are amazed and encouraged by the swift sea-change in opinion about the role and meaning of this powerful symbol.
But this debate is about more than the power of a flag. It is about the long overdue recognition that “Southern heritage” is a euphemism for racism. And it is a moment of national recognition that all the statues, street names and monuments to confederate generals, politicians and slave owners play a role in perpetuating racism as an endemic American disease.
For contemporary Republican and conservative politicians, the debate over the flag also provides a golden opportunity to renounce the racist company they have kept for far too long. We are glad to see that this, too, is finally beginning to happen.
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Several Republican presidential candidates are giving up not only on the Confederate flag, but also the ties that have bound them to the likes of Earl Holt III, a leader of the Missouri-based Council of Conservative Citizens, which opposes “all efforts to mix the races” and insists that “the American people and government should remain European in their composition and character.” Following the brutal church murders, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Rand Paul decided to either return of give away campaign contributions from Holt.
Even more encouraging, there are finally a few voices of genuine repentance. The New York Times reports that in South Carolina, state Sen. Paul Thurmond — the son of Strom Thurmond, a segregationist candidate for president in 1948 — explained why he will vote to remove the flag. “Our ancestors were literally fighting to keep human beings as slaves, and to continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will,” he said. “I am not proud of this heritage.”
Another South Carolina conservative legislator and friend of the slain Clementa Pinckney said, “What lit the fire under this was the tragic death of my friend and his eight parishioners. It took my buddy’s death to get me to do this. I should feel ashamed of myself.”
This overdue sense of shame has spread nationally, and raised debates that go far beyond the South. Amazon, Sears and Walmart have suddenly stopped selling Confederate flags; the nation’s capitol is abuzz about statues there that honor leaders of the Confederacy.
(Here in Washington, we ought to thank state Rep. Hans Dunshee, who succeeded in 2002 in removing markers placed in the 1930s to designate Highway 99 as the “Jefferson Davis Highway.” Those stones are now relegated to a tiny private park in Clark County that regrettably still flies the Confederate flag.)
We hope this rush to renunciation of the symbols of slavery and repentance for tolerating them marks a seismic change. When conservatives and Southern politicians finally acknowledge that the heritage of slavery has poisoned our nation and led to this latest racist brutality, hope is in the air.
President Barack Obama’s two elections, his leadership on race issues, the Black Lives Matter movement and a generational shift may all have helped cultivate the ground that now nurtures these seeds of change.
Time will tell whether this truly marks a moment of transformation in the content of our national character. The debates about monuments, flags and road signs remind us that symbols matter, that history matters, and that how we think about our nation’s past profoundly affects the future we create.