Like millions of my fellow Americans, my heart grieves for the nine innocent people murdered by a domestic terrorist at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I won’t give him the dignity of his name in print, but this was clearly a premeditated, cold-blooded killing based on his hatred of the skin color of his victims.
Which leads me to this: GOP leaders from the Palmetto State and across America need to lead the charge in removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of Columbia’s Capitol immediately. Now. Full stop.
I’m not suggesting that this domestic terrorist was inspired by the display of this specific flag over South Carolina’s statehouse. What I am asserting, however, is that President Obama was correct in his comments the other day when he stated that this flag best belongs in a museum.
And I say all this from the perspective of someone who was privileged to serve the American people in the White House, working for President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Watching the president weigh tough decisions in the Oval Office was often a remarkable experience—there are certain issues the president can only decide and decide alone. The buck truly and ultimately stops with him, so the lack of leadership among the 2016 GOP hopefuls has been a dispiriting sight.
Let’s be clear: The flag that flies near the Capitol in South Carolina is not that of the Confederate States of America. That flag is not dissimilar to the early flags of the United States—with a ring of stars in the upper left corner and stripes comprising the body of the flag.
No, the flag that flies over Columbia today is the Confederate battle flag, a flag rallied around during a war of treason in order to protect and expand race-based slavery.
“Under this fiery cross of St. Andrew, the state of Pennsylvania was invaded and free Americans were rounded up and re-enslaved,” the late Christopher Hitchens wrote when the flag came up during the 2008 South Carolina primary. “Under this same cross, it was announced that any Union officer commanding freed-slave soldiers, or any of his men, would be executed if captured. (In other words, war crimes were boasted of in advance.) The 13 stars of the same flag include stars for two states—Kentucky and Missouri—that never did secede, and they thus express a clear ambition to conquer free and independent states.”
Given the scope of the atrocity committed at the Emanuel AME Church last week, political leaders from across the partisan landscape must admit that the Confederate battle flag should be forever removed—and placed in a museum to teach future generations about the Civil War. That the flag still flies today is offensive—it was only raised over the Capitol in 1962 to send a clear message about the state’s resistance to federal civil-rights efforts. That the GOP, the party of Lincoln, hasn’t led the charge for its removal is even worse.
For generations, GOP leaders have hid behind the notion that this flag is representative of “states’ rights.” And yes, for a state to fly a banner over its capitol is well within its sovereign rights. It is not right, however, to fly a symbol many rightly find divisive and representative of an era in which fellow citizens were discriminated against and tortured on the basis of skin color.
I am a direct descendant of slaves from a plantation located just outside of Valdosta, Georgia. I grew up listening to my grandmother singing poignant songs seeking God’s protection from brutal oppression. When I asked her about these songs were about when I was in high school, she told me these were the songs our relatives sang while working in the heat and under the cruel whip of slave masters who used to beat my relatives. And those slave masters rallied under the battle flag of the Confederacy—the flag that flies over South Carolina’s Capitol today.
If the GOP wants to be taken seriously about making meaningful inroads to communities of color, not only in the South but also across the country, its voice needs to be loud and unequivocal that the Confederacy’s battle flag deserves to be taken down—immediately. And people like former Governor Mark Sanford and current Governor Nikki Haley should be leading the charge, not staying silent.
But if they can’t step up to do the right thing, others in the GOP leadership need to do so right now. I commend South Carolina State Representative Norman “Doug” Brannon for telling MSNBC on Friday he will introduce legislation in the next session calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from the Capitol complex. His rationale was simple: “I had a friend die Wednesday night for no reason other than he was a black man. Senator Pinckney was an incredible human being. I don’t want to talk politics but I’m going to introduce the bill for that reason.”
Former Republican nominee Mitt Romney took to Twitter on Saturday, too. In part, Romney tweeted: “Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.”
Shortly thereafter, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush almost echoed President Obama’s statement by saying: “My position on how to address the Confederate flag is clear. In Florida we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum, where it belonged.” And while it was clever to discuss his perspective as a former governor of Florida, Bush’s comments conveniently ignored the issue at hand in South Carolina. Meanwhile, others in the GOP presidential field have largely avoided the issue as much as possible, which is shameful.
To listen to most of the GOP field hem and haw when asked about the Confederate battle flag is truly baffling to me. Senator X or Governor Y wants to become the next leader of the free world, and yet they have neither the courage nor the conviction to speak out about a symbol that is clearly offensive to many. How can we take them seriously as leaders if they don’t lead here and now? Time to step up your game—this issue will look trifling compared to what you’d encounter in the Oval Office.
As we mourn the losses at Emanuel AME Church, we can honor their legacy by removing the flag that segregationists rallied behind to divide our union, slaughter its citizens, and insist black people deserved to be enslaved as second-class citizens.
We’re not talking about balancing the budget, securing the border, or providing health care to our veterans. We’re talking about an important yet symbolic gesture to honor the legacy of blacks, past and present, who have encountered racism and discrimination at the hands of bigots.
Is it really difficult for GOP leaders to understand this? Here’s hoping the answer is no, and that soon enough they will do the right thing.