On 17 July, Dylann Roof walked into the AME Episcopal Church in South Carolina, Charleston. He sat for an hour. Then he pulled out a gun, and killed nine Black men and women. In the hours and days that followed, we learned more. We learned the names of the dead, the names of the survivors, including the five-year-old who faked her death and in doing so lived. We learned about Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who had committed a hate crime, and an act of domestic terrorism. We all saw the photo of him: scowling at the camera, gun in one hand and Confederate flag in the other. We all realised the Confederate flag still flies outside the South Carolina State House.
In the days since the Charleston shooting, the Confederate flag has become the battleground for discussions of race relations in the United States. America is currently grappling with the following dilemma: is the Confederate flag fanning the flames of racism in the United States? Or is it a symbol of Southern culture? There are calls – from both sides of the political divide – to take the flag down. President Obama has called for its removal. Former Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney tweeted, ‘Take down the #ConfederateFlag at SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.’
Despite this widespread political condemnation, the Confederate flag is not lacking supporters. Over 1000 people gathered in Montgomery, Alabama over the weekend to rally in favour of the Confederate flag. These people view the flag as an emblem of ‘heritage not hate’. Although the flag has been ‘misused’ at points throughout history, they argue, it ultimately signifies a proud regional tradition. They view the attack on the Confederate flag as an attack on their culture. To them, the Confederate flag allows them to honour their history and to celebrate the sacrifice made by their ancestors during the Civil War.
To borrow a metaphor from the historian Ed Ayers, the notion that history – and heritage – are like a treasure chest that you can rifle through, and take out the parts you like and leave the bits you don’t, is very convenient. Take the spoils and leave the debts. In other words, let’s fly the Confederate flag, but refuse to have a conversation about reparations or affirmative action. Let’s have hundreds of Confederate memorials, and not one museum dedicated to slavery. Let’s all read Gone with the Wind, but ignore the convict lease system that locked African Americans into unpaid labour in the aftermath of slavery.
It has been said that history is an argument without end, an aphorism that is particularly applicable to the debate surrounding the Civil War. But despite the attempts to frame the Confederacy as a noble ‘lost cause’, historians now overwhelmingly view the Civil War as a conflict driven – in large part – by slavery. The South wanted to expand slavery. Slavery is more horrible than we normally let ourselves remember. Families were ripped apart. Men were beaten. Women faced the ever-present threat of sexual violence. The Confederacy wanted to continue to profit from the lives of black men, women and children who had no rights or freedom.
When white Southerners come together to fly the Confederate flag, and celebrate Confederate Memorial Day, and purchase Sons of Veterans licence plates, they come together to celebrate a legacy of racism. While history is certainly open to interpretation, to ignore the fundamental racism of the Confederacy is akin to ignoring the anti-Semitism of Nazism, or of telling the story of the European invasion of Australia without including Indigenous Australians. Racism was at the root of the Confederacy. In the ‘Cornerstone speech’, which outlined the Confederate cause, the vice-President of the secessionists, Andrew H Stephens, declared:
Our new government is founded … upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Here is a new moral truth: the Confederate flag embodies the ugliest parts of the American past, and it should be taken down. It should be consigned to the history books, and to the museums. The Confederate flag should be understood for what it is: a symbol of white supremacy.
James Baldwin once wrote, ‘history is literally present in all we do’. The history of slavery and segregation is present in the United States today. Dylann Roof grew up in a world where it isn’t too hard to find anti-black racism: the Confederate flag is an obvious example; the insidious bias built into the criminal justice system another. Pulling down the Confederate flag won’t cure racism in America, just like the election of President Barack Obama did not usher us into a post-racial era, despite all arguments to the contrary. But by taking down the Confederate flag, the United States would formally acknowledge the brutal racism it represents belongs in the past. It could be another step in the long, difficult journey toward addressing the racial ills of the past.