CHARLESTON, S.C. – One hundred fifty years too late, the Confederacy may finally be coming to an end. Finishing it off, however, will require more than getting rid of an offensive flag.
Not that the astounding progress this week toward consigning the Confederate battle flag to the ignominy it deserves is a small thing. Flags are among the most important symbols because they signify allegiance – in this case, to a treasonous rebellion that sought the unimpeded right to buy and sell human beings and brutally compel their unpaid labor.
It should not have taken the murder of nine African-American worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church – committed by a young white man who fetishized the flag – to force the reckoning we now witness: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has demanded that the state Legislature pass a measure removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds. Alabama’s governor ordered that the flag no longer be flown above his state’s capitol. Mississippi is considering altering its state flag to remove the Confederate motif. Wal-Mart, Amazon and other major retailers have announced they will no longer sell merchandise emblazoned with the flag.
There are, of course, diehards. A South Carolina state legislator named Lee Bright – a Republican who happens to be one of the state co-chairmen for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign – denounced what he called a “Stalinist purge” of the rebel flag and said he will fight to keep it. Happily, he will almost surely fail.
The flag was used not only by Confederate soldiers to defend slavery but also by Ku Klux Klansmen committing acts of unspeakable terror against African-Americans – and by state governments throughout the South trumpeting their determination to keep the repression and exploitation of Jim Crow segregation in place. It is a symbol that belongs on the prison-tattooed skin of Aryan Nation thugs, along with their swastikas and their SS insignia. Nowhere else.
But the Confederacy is more than a flag, more than a region, more than Southern nostalgia based on the lie that the Civil War was about something other than slavery. The Confederacy that has endured for a century and a half after Appomattox is a state of mind that encompasses white supremacy, black subjugation, unrestricted gun rights and defiance of the legitimacy of the federal government. Banishing the flag is a beginning, but there is much more to be done.
As a native South Carolinian, I was proud of Haley as she delivered her eloquent speech about the flag – an Indian-American female governor, flanked by all of the state’s leading officials including the first elected African-American U.S. senator from the South since Reconstruction, Tim Scott.
But standing behind Haley was Reince Priebus, the Republican Party’s national chairman, and I couldn’t help but think of all the GOP-led state legislatures around the country, including South Carolina’s, that have passed voter-ID and other laws meant to ensure that fewer African-Americans and other minorities are able to vote. Even when the flag comes down, those laws will still be in place.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart no longer stocks rebel-flag tchotchkes but remains the nation’s largest seller of firearms. Some Wal-Marts are happy to sell military-style assault rifles, which are weapons that no hunter needs. Other big-box retailers such as Target and Costco manage to turn a profit without selling guns.
“I’m not terribly confident that a 21-year-old Wal-Mart clerk is going to sell guns responsibly,” observed Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
Also, it’s true that most state and local governments across the nation can say they never had the Confederate flag as part of their iconography. But as we’ve seen in recent months, there are police departments that treat African-American communities as occupied territory and young black men, especially, as guilty by default. It’s like Jim Crow: Keep the black people under your thumb lest they run wild.
Confronting what’s left of the Confederate state of mind, we are not powerless.
Black voters showed in 2012 that they can overcome restrictive new voting laws. They can do it again, including in state and local elections, where power over voting rights resides.
Those who believe, as I do, that Wal-Mart should get out of the business of selling guns, especially military-style assault rifles, can simply take their business elsewhere.
Businesses deciding where to move or expand can take into account whether police departments practice Confederate-style policing. Local officials will pay attention.
This historical city that marked the birth of the Confederacy can now mark the beginning of its end. But we have work to do.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.