Dylann Roof wanted to start a race war. Instead, he started a bipartisan mass movement against America’s starkest symbol of white supremacy.
In the wake of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church terror attack in Charleston last week, we’ve got Confederate banners coming down in Alabama and likely South Carolina. Governors in Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and North Carolina say they want to discontinue flag-stamped license plates. Kentucky’s U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, said a statue of Jefferson Davis should be removed from his state’s capitol. In Mississippi, a U.S. Senator and a top state lawmaker, both Republicans, said their state flag — a Confederate-haunted affair — should be replaced. And in New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat, said the city should remove four “divisive” monuments, including one that honors Davis and another celebrating Robert E. Lee.
The most affecting public statements these past few days have been the ones from South Carolina Republicans. There’s State Sen. Paul Thurmond, son of that state’s segregationist hero Strom Thurmond, who called for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from the Capitol grounds by saying “Think about it for just a second. Our ancestors were literally fighting to continue to keep human beings as slaves, and continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will. I am not proud of that heritage.”
There’s Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a colleague of Emanuel A.M.E. victim Clementa Pinckney in the South Carolina House, who reversed course on removing the flag, saying, “I blame myself for not listening closely enough to people who see the flag differently than I do. It is a poor reflection on me that it took the violent death of my former desk mate in the SC Senate, and eight others of the best the Charleston community had to offer, to open my eyes to that.”
Qualifiers abound, of course. For instance, as Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker writes:
Despite the electoral balancing act that removing the flag will require, it is one of the easiest steps [South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley] could take to honor the dead of Emanuel A.M.E. Church. The more enduring acts are also far more difficult and unlikely. Haley’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, for instance, left an estimated three hundred and fifty thousand people without access to health insurance. The impoverished, mostly black school districts along Interstate 95—the so-called Corridor of Shame that Barack Obama referenced during his first Presidential campaign—remain an example of failing, underfunded public education. When I spoke to Anton Gunn, a former state legislator who ran Obama’s primary campaign in South Carolina, he asked, “If you take the flag down tomorrow, what is going to substantively change in the lives of black people and people affected by inequality in South Carolina?”
Some Republicans’ newfound opposition to the Confederate banner is surely motivated, at least in part, by national censure and pressures from the business world (always their real base, don’t forget). But that doesn’t mean their sentiments can’t be sincerely meant as well. This is what real change sounds like: Not a sudden, wholesale sprint towards progressive policies, necessarily, but hard, wrenching steps in the right direction from people who have the courage to admit they’ve been wrong in the past.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about Arkansas.
There’s been plenty of mention given so far to a single star on the Arkansas flag which is meant to represent the Confederacy. During his term as governor, Bill Clinton signed a resolution affirming that that is indeed what that particular star stands for, a fact that some have attempted to equate with embrace of the Confederate battle flag. The more obvious Confederate symbolism of the Arkansas flag is contained within its larger design, which is arguably a scrambled version of the good ol’ racist Confederate banner itself. It’s not Mississippi, but still, it’s not pretty.
However, the flag is far from Arkansas’s worst problem in the Confederate department — not when Robert E. Lee Day still stands.
I won’t retread all the arguments here. Just go back and re-read what Kaya Herron wrote for the Times in February, after she sat through a committee meeting in which a parade of Confederate romanticists with a grotesquely skewed view of American history argued before the lawmakers of the state that Arkansas should continue to officially honor the general who led a slavers’ empire into battle against the United States Army — and on the same day as the national Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr holiday.
Most of the Republican lawmakers on that committee agreed, along with at least one Democrat. They were continuing to use the same political calculation that white Southern
Republicans politicians of both parties (but especially Republicans)* have too-often employed since the ’60s when it comes to Confederate imagery (including Nikki Haley, until this week): Pander to the loud rightward fringe, people like Earl Holt III and his Council of Conservative Citizens.
That’s cowardice. That’s the opposite of what their Republican colleagues in South Carolina are doing right now. The legislators who sat on that committee should think back to their vote, and they should be ashamed of themselves.
By the way, there was at least one Republican who did stand up on the right side in February: The ever-complicated Rep. Nate Bell, now an Independent, who sponsored the bill that would have de-coupled the Lee and King holidays. Bell is wrong on many things, but he’s got backbone on this issue.
Today, Asa Hutchinson got some questions from CNBC about that star on the Arkansas flag, and about Walmart’s decision to yank Confederate flag items from its shelves. Those were fairly easy to answer. The real question for the governor when it comes to the prickly issue of lost cause symbolism in Arkansas is this: What about Robert E. Lee Day? Is it time or is it not time to turn the page?
*June 25, 12:46 p.m.: I made this edit upon further reflection. Although the Republican Party has come to own race-flavored (or flamboyantly racist) white conservative grievance in the past few decades, it certainly doesn’t have a lock on pandering to those base urges among certain segments of the electorate. Some Dems are guilty too, especially at the state and local level. Racism among Southern Democrats didn’t disappear with Faubus.