When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds Monday, the crowd interrupted with loud and unceasing applause for 30 full seconds.
Those were cheers of relief, an exhale at finally breaking with what Haley described as “a brutally oppressive past.” While the S.C. House and Senate must still codify Haley’s demand, Monday marked a signal moment in South Carolina’s history and a step to the future. Haley’s short statement was peppered with references to “moving forward,” “progress,” “change for the better” and “the 21st century.”
The flag was raised over the South Carolina capitol as a defiant statement about race. It will be lowered as an equally defiant rejection of another statement about race, this one made by an evil man who cloaked himself in the flag.
Haley labeled Dylann Roof’s view of the flag as “sick and twisted” – and surely it was. But it’s important to remember, when defending the flag as a symbol of heritage, that it was erected over the S.C. capitol dome in 1961, not 1861. It was appropriated from the Civil War era by white supremacists in the heat of a national battle over civil rights. Historians point out that it was not the national flag of the Confederate States of America and did not fly over state capitols during the Civil War. It was a flag revived by the Ku Klux Klan and the Dixiecrats of 1948 who used it as a symbol of racial hatred.
That leading Republicans and Democrats stood in unity against the flag Monday speaks to how horrific the killings of nine black worshipers in Charleston were, and to the power of a picture. Seeing photos of Roof waving the flag made flying it at the Capitol unthinkable.
So Haley, who dismissed calls to take the flag down in her campaign last year, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, who just last week hedged and called the banner “part of who we are” finally saw the right thing to do. Haley was decisive, even if she had little choice but to be so, and admirably straightforward.
We understand that some number of South Carolinians truly embrace the flag as a symbol of their heritage, of the loyalty and duty their ancestors demonstrated in fighting for their state. We understand many others, when citing “heritage,” are actually using the flag to send a message about hate.
Most importantly, the flag undeniably is a symbol to many of inequality and a violent past. And because, as Haley said, the statehouse belongs to all South Carolinians, that was reason enough to take it down long ago.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans responded immediately Monday by saying they will fight to keep the flag flying. Some legislators were notably absent from Haley’s media event.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine the flag staying put. Graham said the flag needs to be moved to “an appropriate location.” Haley said the flag “will always be a part of the soil of South Carolina.” The best home for it, however, would be only a museum.