In the wake of last week’s shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, one theme has come up repeatedly: that white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof often surrounded himself with the Confederate battle flag, that even the license plate on his getaway car had the emblem, and that as he murdered nine people, the flag flew in a place of honor next to South Carolina’s state house.
Days after the shooting, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state house. This was a reversal for Haley, who argued vehemently against the removal of the flag during last year’s campaign for re-election. It’s also a reversal for Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said last week that the flag is “part of who we are” and now calls for removal of the flag as “another step towards healing and recognition.” The state legislature’s official session ended at the beginning of this month, but they’ve remained sitting to resolve a budget issue, and Haley has said that she’ll call them back during the summer, if necessary, to get the flag down, since that’s what it will take.
A bill in 2000 by the South Carolina General Assembly — the South Carolina Heritage Act — in response to lobbying by civil rights activists, removed the huge Confederate flag from the dome of the Capitol. However, the bill also decreed that the flag — 52 inches square, including the white border, because it’s important that such things be legislated — be flown at the Confederate Soldiers’ Monument on the state house grounds. And neither that flag, nor any other Confederate flag, nor any “monument, marker, memorial, school, or street named in honor of the Confederacy or the civil rights movement” on state property can be “removed, changed, or renamed” without a two-thirds vote from the General Assembly. And, indeed, when the U.S. and South Carolina flags were lowered to half mast in remembrance of those killed at Emanuel AME, the Confederate flag stayed where it was next to the state house. Padlocked in place.
And that’s why, in a move that might shock a lot of people, one of the first Southern states to actually get the flag off of the flagpole was… Alabama. This morning, without fanfare, the Confederate battle flag was removed from a memorial on the state capitol grounds. Gov. Robert Bentley, who gave the order to have it removed, says he checked to make sure his order was clear with state policy before giving the go-ahead, and says, “This is the right thing to do.”
(Shortly after the flag — and three other Civil War-era flags — was removed, a protester from the Sons of Confederate Veterans showed up with his own Confederate flag. He called the removal a “violation of Confederate history” and “a violation of [his] heritage.”)
In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday that he would call for a redesign of the state’s specialty Sons of Confederate Veterans tag, which was first issued in February of last year. He says the new design will remove the big image of the flag that covered the entire plate and leave only the smaller image that’s on the plate on top of the big one, because God forbid you should get in a pinch and find yourself without redundant Confederate flags. The announcement came about half an hour after he announced that he wouldn’t support changes to the plate, saying that his “position hasn’t changed” since he opposed such changes during last year’s election campaign. Georgia removed the image of the Confederate flag from its state flag in 2001, because again, redundant flaggage is important.
Governors in Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Maryland have all announced plans to change or remove similar license plates in their state. Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina governors have expressed no plans to keep or remove theirs, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal punted on the question.
In Mississippi, a moveon.org petition is calling for the removal of the Confederate emblem from the Mississippi state flag. Their flag had used the emblem since 1894, but it was officially adopted in 2001, possibly to make sure they would never find themselves like Georgia with just the one flag on their flag. Former Gov. Haley Barbour said that the Confederate emblem on Mississippi’s flag was different from emblems on other flags, because the flag has been in place for more than 100 years and was not “stimulated by the Civil Rights movement,” which of course makes all the difference when you’re a black person in Mississippi looking up at your state flag. State legislators, however, are increasingly of the opinion that the flag needs to change anyway. Says state Sen. Kenny Jones, “In 2001, the conversation centered around the flag being disrespectful and appalling to African-Americans, but at the same time it was about the heritage to the white community. Now, the conversation is different. Now it’s about how this symbol represents hatred, violence and bigotry. Now it’s about what can we do to make our state more progressive but in a bipartisan way.”
Of course, we can’t lull ourselves into the belief that removing the flag will actually eliminate racism — as observed in, for instance, Texas, which denied a Confederate flag license plate to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2009 but also watched a cop kneel on the back of a 14-year-old black girl in a bikini at a pool party just a few weeks ago, so maybe some work is still needed there. Dylann Roof probably would have still murdered nine black people in a church whether or not his getaway car had a Confederate flag license plate, and the KKK will still have a flag to rally under even when it’s no longer flying in front of the South Carolina state house. And removing the institutional racism symbolized by the flag doesn’t change voter ID laws, legislative redistricting, or police violence, which take a lot more nuance, empathy, and cooperation than pulling down 2,700 square inches of fabric.
But an accomplishment is an accomplishment, a milestone is a milestone, and removing an emblem of violence, bigotry, and division from the official standard representing states full of actual people is an unquestionably good thing. Whether you personally see it as an issue of heritage or an issue of hatred, you should be able to accept that asking people to stand proudly under a flag overtly representing the battle to enslave their ancestors is out of line. That state governments are only now starting to address that fact, that it took racist murders in a church to get the ball rolling, is shameful, but it’s better late than never. The people of Alabama and South Carolina will soon learn, as so many people in other states have done, that grits will still taste good, cicadas will still sound good, Saturdays in the fall will still be a lousy time for a wedding, and beloved ancestors will remain beloved long after the Confederate battle flag is no longer state sanctioned. And as a bonus, a huge red square with a huge blue X on it is a pretty handy way of identifying people you probably want to avoid. So good job, y’all, and don’t stop quite yet.