December 9, 2019
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Not long ago, Governor Nikki Haley got it right.
After Dylann Roof murdered nine parishioners at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, then-Governor Haley made the right call.
Roof, who had maintained a staunchly white supremacist website and had posed with the flag and other symbols of hate, made it clear what he had gone there to do.
A follow-up manifesto written in jail brought his actions into starker clarity: “I did what I thought would make the biggest wave, and now the fate of our race is in the hands of my brothers who continue to live freely.”
In the aftermath of the massacre, the eyes of the world were on South Carolina, including the Confederate flag which flew over the state house, the very symbol that Roof believed would inspire a race war.
Back then, there were protests and op-eds, and finally, an extraordinary civil action: Artist, filmmaker, and activist Brittany “Bree” Newsome scaled the 30-foot flagpole and removed the flag herself.
“You come against me with hatred, oppression, and violence,” Newsome said from her perch. “I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.”
Haley made sure it stayed down by signing a bill that removed the flag from the State House grounds. “The State House is different, and the events of this past week call upon us to look at this in a different way,” she said.
But on Friday, Haley, who most recently served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, seemed to say that the Confederate flag had been “hijacked” by Roof, and had ruined the symbol for everybody.
“People saw it as service, and sacrifice, and heritage,” the ex-governor said, speaking with host Glenn Beck on Blaze TV. She sounded exasperated. “But once he did that, there was no way to overcome it. And the national media came in droves—they wanted to define what happened. They wanted to make this about racism. They wanted to make it about gun control. They wanted to make it about the death penalty.”
The national media “wanted to make this about racism.” Let that sink in.
Whatever Haley’s motives are—which are anybody’s guess at this point—she gets the history of the flag dangerously wrong.
Adam H. Domby, an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston, was unsparing in his assessment of her remarks.
“Indeed, the flag had long been tied to white supremacy, racism, and racial violence,” he begins.
It first appeared atop the South Carolina State House in 1962 in part to protest civil rights and integration, and it’s been the source of pain and controversy in the state ever since.
In this opinion piece, Domby, the author of The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory, traces an unbroken line of white supremacy from the Civil War to today:
“Look no further than Charleston in 1875, where armed members of the Carolina Rifle Club of Charleston marched through town behind a Confederate flag in an effort to intimidate black voters as part of a statewide white-supremacist campaign that included voter intimidation, ballot box stuffing and terrorism. White supremacists at the time did not need to appropriate the symbol; it already belonged to them.”
The Confederate flag is a signpost of voter suppression to this day.
In an earlier op-ed, Kareem U. Crayton, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, says that the Confederate flag has become a deeply anti-democratic symbol, and flying it has consequences:
“The Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked the proliferation of hate groups nationwide, including those known as neo-Confederates. These are not the folks who primarily re-enact battles. Rather, the neo-Confederates lament the demise of the principle that made slavery possible—that some people are not created equal. Their aim is to reinstate that order, and their brand heavily relies on the rebel flag. Their headquarters are almost entirely located in the American South, with the largest number in South Carolina.”
A brief Crayton helped present to the Supreme Court explored the impact of these entrenched racist ideas on democratic institutions.
“We found that whites living in the states covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (a provision rendered inert by the Supreme Court) report a greater willingness to agree that black people have too much influence in government,” he says. “Whites living in these states are also more likely to express racial resentment than those living elsewhere.”
The Confederate flag has always been a complicated bit of business for this country.
I think it’s safe to say that we, as a nation, are doing a uniformly poor job putting our Confederate past into any sort of context. While it’s undeniably painful, by failing to do so, we’re also allowing those symbols to erode already shaky democratic norms.
“For all of its historic appeal, the flag inspires an idea that is not just unappealing but anti-democratic,” says Crayton.
It’s a hijacking, alright, not just one that Haley meant.
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Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Adam Domby.