Through our modern eyes, the removal of the Confederate flag on Friday from outside the South Carolina State House may have struck some as welcome but overwrought and long overdue.
All that pomp. All those uniforms. All that solicitous standing at attention.
A century and a half after the Civil War, 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, it still took the racist murder of nine stunningly good human beings – plus an almost superhuman expression of forgiveness by the victims’ traumatized survivors – to persuade one batch of Southern politicians to take down a banner glorifying oppression and slavery.
And yet, through the lens of history, that ceremony was a milestone. Anyone who has spent time in the South knows how hard it has been for many descendants of Civil War rebels to collectively swallow their pride.
If they didn’t know, Southern Republicans in Congress were there this week to remind them, enlisting California’s own U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert to push for Confederate grave-decoration privileges in national cemeteries.
The move, subsequently withdrawn, was a breathtaking blunder and an embarrassment to California. (What in the world were you thinking, Rep. Calvert?)
But the fact that House leaders put the Corona Republican up to it shows how stubbornly some people in the South have held onto that ugly symbol, and how chronically the rest of us have indulged them. On Friday, as South Carolina let go, the nation exhaled.
Now, there’s the sense that all sides have been heard, and may even be ready to move forward a little. There’s no time to lose.
Demographics are already trumping the South’s old black-and-white demons. The governors of South Carolina and Louisiana are children of immigrants from Punjab. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population more than doubled in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.
As in the rest of the nation, demographics already are trumping the South’s old black-and-white demons. The governors of South Carolina and Louisiana are children of immigrants from Punjab. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population more than doubled in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.
In a global economy, corporations see no profit in enabling bigots. And young people increasingly see race as their parents’ or grandparents’ issue.
It is beyond exasperating that the victims of racism had to bend over backward just to extract a modicum of humanity in South Carolina. But after 150 years, that sacrifice has broken a crippling logjam.
As President Barack Obama noted in his eulogy to Clementa C. Pinckney and the eight other parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, this nation’s original sin was slavery. We have not fully overcome it.
But furling the battle flag that had flown at the South Carolina capitol grounds was an important step toward a more perfect union, and an invitation to look to the future, where history is already on the move.