Littwin: Taking down the Confederate flag and racist pride, too

When the governor of South Carolina called for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from the State House grounds, it felt as if the world had stopped, if just for moment, to give itself time to adjust.

Yes, the moment was that big.

It’s not the end of racism, any more that electing and re-electing Barack Obama was the end of racism. But it might just be the end of pretending that racism doesn’t exist, the end of pretending that somehow talking about race is the real racism, the end of the idea that all we have to do to end racial discrimination is just announce that we’ll stop discriminating.

In the age of #blacklivesmatter, the horror of the murders at Emanuel AME church seemed almost inevitable. And so Gov. Nikki Haley had no choice. There was nothing to be done to bring back the dead, but the longstanding controversy over the Confederate flag would have to be addressed. She would be joined by Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican African-American, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican presidential candidate, in saying that the flag belongs in a museum, not flying over their state.

It isn’t really in dispute that the flag is a symbol of a war fought to defend slavery. It’s in the history books, or most of them. It’s in the South Carolina declaration of secession. You could look it up.

[pullquote]It isn’t really in dispute that the flag is a symbol of a war fought to defend slavery.[/pullquote]

And yet, it was because it was so obvious that the story became so compelling. You just had to watch Haley’s speech to see the rare thing – hard truths being spoken by a politician. Haley, who has dodged the issue for years, talked briefly about the flag and “heritage,” but then came to the real point, that for many the flag was a “deeply offensive symbol of a brutally offensive past.”

And yet here might have been a way out. If only the city of Charleston had rioted. Or if only the families of the victims hadn’t been so generous as to say they forgave Dylann Roof for his grievous sin. Or if only Roof hadn’t identified a hate crime so closely with the Confederate flag and the most vile racist libels.

It was all too obvious. It was so obvious that Mississippi’s Speaker of the House Philip Gunn said that the Mississippi state flag – which incorporates the Confederate battle flag – needs to be replaced. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger said that it was the first time a Republican politician in Mississippi had ever made that call.

It was so obvious that Obama, who is coming to Charleston to eulogize Clementa Pinckney, used the N-word – to make the point that you don’t erase hundreds of years of history by no longer saying the word “nigger” in polite society.

For a time, it seemed the flag controversy was being used to give cover to those who didn’t want to talk about gun violence. And if you doubted how hard it is to deal with the issue of guns, it now seems that even race is an easier subject to confront.

But as we watched a parade of Republican presidential candidates refuse to take a stand on the flag, it was obvious, too, where we stood. What could be easier than simply speaking the truth — to just say that whatever South Carolina chooses to do, it’s wrong to fly that flag? Instead, Marco Rubio said all but nothing. Ted Cruz said he saw “both sides.”

Then Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee from another campaign, said the flag had to go. And Democrats were saying the flag had to go. And the party of Lincoln was in a bind, in such a bind that behind the scenes leading Republicans were begging Haley to get them off the hook.

We know this history, too. John McCain had admitted that he had failed himself, and his conscience, when he ran in 2000 and said it was up to South Carolina what to do with the Confederate flag. He did it, he said, because he thought he couldn’t win the GOP primary otherwise. At that point, it still flew from the State House dome. Then it was moved to a Confederate memorial on the grounds. And now Haley is ready to call a special session of the legislature if she can’t get the two-thirds vote to remove the flag altogether.

The flag, after all, has little to do with heritage and pride, unless it’s white heritage and white pride. The flag is not about culture. It’s about glorifying a war to defend the greatest stain on our nation’s history.

The flag took its place atop the South Carolina dome in 1961. They didn’t just rediscover the Civil War in the ’60s. This was about desegregation and Brown v. the Board of Education and the federal government’s right to enforce its laws. It was about Southern identity in the time of Jim Crow.

It was about bumper stickers popular in my youth featuring a gray-bearded Confederate soldier hoisting a Confederate flag and shouting, “Forget? Hell!” or “Forget? Hell No!”

What do you think all the hell-noing was about?

You can make a list. A war that nearly split our country. Jim Crow. A hundred years of apartheid. A hundred years and more of lynchings. The riots at Ole Miss. George Wallace. The firebombing of the children in Birmingham. Schwerner-Chaney-Goodman. Medgar Evers. Bull Connor. Little Rock. Selma.

The list goes on. But the flag, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, might finally be coming down.

Photo credit: Mr.Tin.D.C., Creative Commons, Flickr.