On Friday morning, Dylann Roof confessed to the murder of nine African American worshippers at the historically black Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Accounts of the shooting, which took place Wednesday evening, are horrifying, with witnesses saying Roof made it clear that he was motivated by raw, unbridled racism. “I have to do it,” Roof was quoted as saying before he opened fire on parishioners attending a Bible study. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
As journalists scrambled to unearth more information about Roof on Thursday morning, one piece of damning evidence emerged: A Facebook picture of him on top of his car bearing a license plate with different versions of the Confederate flag. In case it wasn’t clear, the flags were surrounded by the words “Confederate States of America.”
To drive the point home further, Roof reportedly told one of his old roommates before the shooting that he “wanted to start a civil war.”
Within hours, social media was flooded with posts and tweets about the Confederate flag, and the word “Confederate” quickly became a trending topic on Twitter. Pieces decrying the flag’s presence on the South Carolina State House grounds began popping up everywhere: Vox’s Zack Beauchamp railed against the historic symbol of the Confederacy, calling its placement on government property “an insult to Charleston’s victims”; Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a blistering critique of the flag in the Atlantic, aptly titled “Take Down the Confederate Flag—Now”; and The Boston Globe published this scathing political cartoon:
— Dan Wasserman (@GlobeWasserman) June 18, 2015
The sentiment wasn’t limited to D.C. writers, Baltimore-born thinkers, and Massachusetts-based publications (whom Yankee-wary South Carolinians who support the flag probably won’t listen to anyway). Several Palmetto State natives also pointed to the flag’s influence over South Carolinians, and its potential connection to the killings. When South Carolina NAACP President Lonnie Randolph was asked to explain the shooting, he replied, “This is a state that feels that it is OK to fly the Confederate flag in front of our State House.”
In the wake of what appears to be a racist hate crime, people are simply asking the obvious: Why does a historic emblem of racial intolerance — which was clearly a beloved symbol for this alleged murderer of African Americans — still have a prominent place in front of South Carolina’s legislative halls of power?
I am well acquainted with this question. Though I don’t live there at the moment, I spent my entire childhood and college years in South Carolina, where at least half of my family has lived since before the Revolutionary War (the other half is from Georgia, which until a few years ago had the Confederate flag emblazoned on its state flag). Like most South Carolinians, I have a fierce love of my home state.
But the Confederate flag is a point of profound embarrassment for many South Carolina residents, including many in my family, some of whom very publicly called for its removal from the top of the State House in the 1990s. That debate ultimately culminated in 2000, when the flag was moved from the top of the State House to the front, which, while technically progress, arguably made things worse: Now South Carolina government officials, many of whom are black, are forced to walk past a symbol of the Confederacy on their way to work.
With this in mind, I — a white, male, South Carolinian with multiple ancestors who fought for the Confederacy — am painfully aware that this week’s shooting has everything to do with the Confederate flag.
Many South Carolinians won’t agree with me, of course, because support for the Confederate flag still runs deep in the Palmetto State. This is where reenactments of the “War of Northern Aggression” are a regular occurrence, little league teams are sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and school children are encouraged to participate in essay contests glorifying Robert E. Lee. At my own college alma mater in Clinton, South Carolina, at least two fraternities regularly waved the Confederate flag from atop their houses, and a football game commemorating the “Battle of Lexington” was a celebrated pastime.
Civil War buffs from my beloved home state often deflect conversations about the flag and say that the actions of people like Roof — who do horrible things while associating themselves with the Confederacy — aren’t an indictment on the symbol itself. The flag, they argue, is simply a cultural token passed down over the generations, and has more to do with barbecues and pickup trucks than slavery or racism.
Or, as the oft-quoted saying goes, “It’s about heritage, not hate.”
But if Roof’s senseless rampage tells us anything, it’s that while the Confederate flag is certainly about heritage, it is and always has been about hate. By being part of Roof’s constellation of negative influences, the symbol of the Confederacy — and the history behind it — is once again associated with the pointless murder of people of color. A flag didn’t create Roof’s apparent hostility towards black people, but the state’s obsession with it fomented his hatred with misguided pride. A flag didn’t guide his hand as he loaded his gun on Wednesday, but it gave him a banner under which to justify his actions. And a flag didn’t force Roof to open fire on a group of unarmed African American worshippers during a church Bible study, but it was waving all the same — in license plate form — as he drove away from the slaughter.
It’s easy to recount the multiplicity of historical explanations as to why the Confederate flag has absolutely no place anywhere near the South Carolina State House. It doesn’t make any sense, for instance, to fly the flag of the United States of America next to the flag of a failed state that actively tried to secede from the union, sparking a war that resulted in the deaths of more Americans than any other armed conflict — including World War II. It also seems silly to waste taxpayer dollars caring for a symbol of treason, because, let’s face it, that’s exactly what it means to declare a state independent and start shooting at federal troops. Hell, the flag that waves in front of the State House isn’t even the actual national flag of the Confederacy, but rather the “Battle Flag”, or “the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.”
But I’ve had countless debates with fellow Sandlappers about this. These arguments usually don’t convince people. And tragically, neither do arguments about the real issue at play: That the flag is a symbol of unmitigated racism, and any government that supports it is implicitly propagating bigotry.
It doesn’t matter how many times you tell the average Confederate flag-waver that, yes, the Civil War was about slavery — specifically the state’s right to own slaves — because leaders of South Carolina said as much in their own articles of secession back in 1860, which mentioned slavery no fewer than 18 times. It doesn’t matter how delicately you explain that this fact makes the flag inherently offensive to African Americans, because it represents a time when South Carolina was willing to go to war just to retain the right own people as property. It also doesn’t matter how fervently you insist that after the war, the flag was consistently used as a rallying cry for racists, with Klan members, vigilantes, and segregationists waving it proudly as they beat, terrorized, and murdered black people across the state — just like Roof allegedly did on Wednesday evening.
And it definitely doesn’t matter how desperately you remind them that the flag didn’t even go up over the State House until 1961 — coinciding with both the centennial anniversary of the war and the early stages of the African American Civil Rights movement — where celebratory ceremonies were racially segregated, and where famous Dixiecrat/segregationist/South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond told the all-white crowd that nowhere in the U.S. Constitution “does it hint a purpose to insure equality of man or things.”
It often doesn’t matter if you say any of these things, because support for the flag isn’t about logic, or even morality. It’s about culture, specifically one where the status quo is to worship the ghosts of soldiers past instead of dealing with the harsh realities of the present.
The Southern obsession with the Civil War shores up a society that, if not always physically segregated, is clearly ideologically so: According to a 2014 poll commissioned by The State, 61 percent of South Carolinians think the flag should continue to fly, while only 33 percent say it should be taken down. Things get even worse when you break the results down by race: 73 percent of whites in South Carolina support flying the flag, but 61 percent of blacks say it should be removed.
Yet despite all of this, there is potential for change, because South Carolina need not be defined by monsters like Roof. The Palmetto State really is home to some of the best people in the world, and if there is one thing we love more than the Civil War, it’s Jesus. True, the South has a pretty horrible history of racists attacking black houses of worship, but South Carolinians generally take sacred space seriously, which means this tragic church shooting could open up meaningful dialogue about race. We’re not always the best Christians — who is? — but perhaps this time, lawmakers can finally fully embrace Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, and heed the cries of so many South Carolinians calling for the removal of the last, ceremonial vestige of one of the darkest points in American history.
Obviously, removing the Confederate flag from the State House won’t erase racism in South Carolina. That will take far more than a symbolic gesture. But it can at least return the flag to its rightful place — a museum — and take one small step towards eradicating institutional racism in the South.
Oh, and hey, South Carolina: If y’all are looking for something to replace it with, might I humbly suggest not a flag of war, but a statement of peace. You could even try a flag with our own state motto, dum spiro spero — “while I breathe, I hope.”
God knows we could use a little of that hope right now, because for too many South Carolinians who aren’t safe in their neighborhoods or even their churches, it’s getting really hard to breathe.