One year ago today, white supremacist Dylann Roof gunned down nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, setting off a national debate about gun control and racial violence in America. Roof hoped to start a race war, but unwittingly inspired a movement to “take down” the Confederate flag — a symbol that he displayed proudly — instead.
Soon after the Emanuel A.M.E. Church shooting, the word “Confederate” set social media ablaze as people across the nation called for the symbol — referred to by many as a vestige of Southern heritage — to be removed from government buildings, state emblems, college campuses, and historical sites.
“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,” author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the Atlantic. “Take down the flag. Take it down now.”
And some people did.
In South Carolina, Bree Newsom scaled the flag pole in front of the State House and dropped the cloth to the ground, saying, “We can’t wait any longer.” Weeks later, despite disapproval from fellow lawmakers, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) signed a law to remove the flag from the State House grounds altogether. Gov. Robert Bentley (R) followed suit in Alabama, as did a handful of smaller towns throughout the country, including Danville, Virginia, the last capitol of the Confederacy. Major corporations announced they’d stop selling Confederate merchandise. This week, the National Cathedral decided to remove a stain glass painting with Confederate flags and Pennsylvania’s governor signed a biil to remove the flag from the state capitol building.
But one year later, the battle over the flag and other hallmarks of the Confederacy wages on, even in states that initially took a stance against them.
There are still eight states that memorialize the Confederacy with designated holidays: South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas.
Each state puts its own spin on those holdays. For instance, Alabama shuts down all of its courts, state offices, and licensing offices on General Robert E Lee’s birthday, whereas Virginia honors Lee and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson with two separate holidays. Mississippi, the state with the largest percentage of black people, has an entire Confederate Heritage month.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill told ThinkProgress that he supports the “celebration of the heritage of the South” but that pride isn’t “related to race, divisiveness, or a heritage of fighting.”
Meanwhile, opposition groups across the South have started burning Confederate flags on Memorial Day. Florida artist John Sims came up with the Burn and Bury event “to ritualistically confront through reflection and catharsis, the pain and trauma of a very horrific part of American history.” In an interview with ThinkProgress, Sims said he’d previously organized flag burnings, but was inspired by the Charleston shooting to make an even bigger statement.
Failed state legislation
Shortly after the Emanuel A.M.E. massacre, Mississippi eyed legislation to remove a Confederate battle emblem from the state flag.
“We can’t achieve our social and economic potential as a state when we have a banner that includes a symbol associated with a civil war that was fought to keep our ancestors in slavery and the legacy of white supremacy and racism,” the director of One Flag for All said during a rally at the state’s capitol in February.
In Georgia, State Rep. Tommy Benton (R) introduced a bill to prevent the removal, altering, or concealing of monuments honoring Lee and Davis on Stone Mountain. Benton, who’s called the push to remove Confederate symbols “cultural terrorism,” introduced a separate bill to commemorate the war generals with “public and legal holidays.”
“That’s no better than what ISIS is doing, destroying museums and monuments,” the representative said of opposition to Confederate markers. “I feel very strongly about this. I think it has gone far enough. There is some idea out there that certain parts of history out there don’t matter anymore and that’s a bunch of bunk.”
Benton also defended the Ku Klux Klan, which regularly burned crosses on Stone Mountain, as “not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order” that got people to “straighten up.”
Following swift backlash, Benton and his cosponsors removed their names from both pieces of legislation, effectively stopping the bills in their tracks.
Congress has also been forced to reckon with Confederate symbols. By a 265–159 vote in May, it banned the flags from cemeteries run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. All but one Democrat voted in favor of the policy change, as did 84 Republican leaders.
Other bills have been more contentious. In April, the House’s Armed Services Commission shut down a bill to take the flag down in a military college chapel in South Carolina, despite the college voting in favor to do so. House Republicans also killed a $30.2 billion spending bill for the Department of Interior because it included an amendment to remove the flags in federal parks and cemeteries nationwide.
The university battleground
Following the Charleston shooting, tension over the Confederate battle emblem occurred on campuses across the South. Students pressured the University of Mississippi — better known as Ole Miss — to remove the state flag from its grounds. Not all students were happy about the change.
“You’ll see students speaking openly [on social media] about the flag as a deracialized symbol, a symbol of southern pride, anti-government sensibilities, even a kind of sense of family and family heritage that makes the flag something of a synonym for mom and sweet potato pie,” a University of Mississippi professor said of lingering Confederate culture. “It’s this idea of, yes there was slavery and yes, slavery was bad, but we’re frontloading all these other meanings in front of that and the idea that secession, and in some form in rebellion of authority, probably meaning liberal authority in Washington, is a good thing.”
But the ongoing fight against racist symbolism also centered school names. After the shooting, Yale students circulated a petition for one of its residential colleges to be renamed, because namesake John Calhoun was a white supremacist and ardent supporter of slavery. The school president decided against the name change in April. At Princeton University, students staged a sit in, demanding that segregationist President Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from buildings across campus, including a residential college and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs. But the school also refused to make the changes.
Campus statues have been equally controversial. Students at the University of Texas — Austin (UT Austin) and the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill spraypainted messages like “murderer” and “Black Lives Matter” on statues of known Confederates, including Jefferson Davis. UT Austin conceded to moving the Jefferson effigy from a main hall to a museum on campus.
License plate politics
Multiple states permit specialty Confederate plates: South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Following the shooting, North Carolina and Tennessee lawmakers introduced bills to do away with the plates, but neither state has done so yet.
However, in a surprising twist, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas broke with his conservative colleagues and ruled that Texas isn’t legally obligated to issue license plates with the Confederate symbol. While the 5–4 court decision was made one day after the Charleston shooting, the battle in the Lone Star began long before the symbol became a national talking point. When Texas refused to issue the plates to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group took the fight to court, arguing the state was violating members’ First Amendment rights.
Celisa Calacal and Rachel Cain contributed to this piece.