No divisive flags in public square

The Observer editorial board

The Confederacy’s first national flag flies over the state Capitol.
The Confederacy’s first national flag flies over the state Capitol. AP FILE PHOTO

It’s time for North Carolina to stop issuing Confederate flag license plates. It also should stop flying the first national flag of the Confederacy – the Stars and Bars – above the Capitol to commemorate Confederate holidays.

Since the appalling murders of nine worshipers last week at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, leaders across the South have moved to take the Confederate battle flag from positions of veneration in the public square.

If citizens desire to honor their ancestors by flying Confederate flags on private property, they are free to do so. But that right ends where public property begins.

North Carolina’s license plate and its Capitol belong to us all. The Confederate battle flag does not. It heralds a society built on dividing people into color-coded workers and servants. The battle flag is, by definition, a symbol of division. Despite its lower profile, the Stars and Bars is, too.

The murders at Emanuel – and the photos of the suspect brandishing Confederate flags and visiting Confederate history monuments – have finally stripped the battle flag’s defenders of their flimsy “heritage not hate” rationale.

Gov. Nikki Haley’s call for the removal of the flag from her state’s capitol grounds has unleashed pent-up fervor nationwide for the flag’s removal. Alabama lowered its Confederate flags, and retailers such as Amazon, Wal-Mart, Target and Sears say they will stop selling them. Some say statues of Confederate leaders should come down.

Critics call this an overreaction that won’t stop racism, and question if all Confederate symbols will be banished from public life.

They shouldn’t be. Our past, perhaps especially the ugliest chapters, must not be forgotten. So existing Confederate monuments, like the one Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio has raised questions about, should stay – even on public property.

But a flag is different. Soldiers plant their flag in conquered soil because a flag announces who you are, and what you stand for as a people. None of the Confederacy’s flags embrace all that we have become as a state. They have no business flying above our Capitol, ever. And they should not adorn our license plates.

Gov. Pat McCrory says he wants the legislature to do away with the Confederate plates. Phil Berger, leader of the Senate, suggests McCrory already has the power to do it himself.

McCrory’s office tells the editorial board that the N.C. Department of Transportation originally rejected the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ request for the vanity plates, but a court ruling said the organization qualified as a civic group entitled to receive them. McCrory’s argument that the legislature must pass a law changing the qualifications seems convincing.

Less convincing is his belief that the Stars and Bars can keep flying above the Capitol to commemorate Confederate history days because it “is not the flag that has been used in such an offensive way.”

That might be so, but the fact remains that it symbolizes a society and culture whose values are wholly and understandably repugnant to African Americans who today comprise nearly a quarter of the state’s population.

As Haley showed, this is a time for decisive action. Sure, removing the flag won’t cure racism. But it will announce who we are, and what we stand for.

And that’s a good start.