Re­moval of Con­fed­er­ate flag ends for­mer state gover­nor’s 17-year mis­sion

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY MICHAEL VAN PELT TROY MEDIA Michael Van Pelt is pres­i­dent of Car­dus, a Hamil­ton-based think tank.

Sev­en­teen years is a long time to wait in pol­i­tics. One would think that was the case for David Beasley, for­mer Repub­li­can gover­nor of South Carolina. But is it re­ally that long?

The an­swer came on a Fri­day at 10 a.m. ear­lier this month, as po­lice low­ered and re­moved the Con­fed­er­ate flag from the grounds of the State House in Columbia. It was a me­mo­rial mo­ment for the state, and the coun­try, and es­pe­cially so for Beasley who, in the af­ter­math of the Charleston church shoot­ings, and with the help of many oth­ers, won the fight to have the con­tro­ver­sial flag re­moved.

The ges­ture and its ne­ces­sity can be per­plex­ing for Cana­di­ans.

I’m not sure I would have un­der­stood it, if not for my good for­tune to be on the Capi­tol build­ing steps with Beasley as the flag came down. The vivid, emo­tional mean­ing of the event tran­scended ge­og­ra­phy or com­mon history.

The crowd was cu­ri­ously quiet for a bit. Then the shout be­gan and built in in­ten­sity: “Take it down. Take it down. Take it down!” The power of the chant was the force of time mov­ing for­ward in a way that seemed to oblit­er­ate ever go­ing back­ward. And it was, in its way, that most Amer­i­can of sounds: the voice of the peo­ple de­mand­ing change with an au­thor­ity that no one dared to chal­lenge.

That flag was com­ing down. So it did. And yet it al­most didn’t.

In 1998, then-gover­nor Beasley de­cided the Con­fed­er­ate flag must be re­moved. He fought an elec­tion over it, com­mit­ting to re­move the flag from the State House if he won. He lost. Pun­dits agreed it was an elec­tion from which he should have emerged vic­to­ri­ous.

In­stead, Beasley saw a hole torn in his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. He suf­fered through death threats against him and his fam­ily.

Per­haps worst of all, he had to wait al­most two decades to do what he knew, and de­clared, should be done. He wanted the Con­fed­er­ate flag re­moved be­fore the new mil­len­nium, be­fore the United States elected its first black pres­i­dent, be­fore nine peo­ple lost their lives in­side a church in the name of the de­hu­man­iz­ing ha­tred the Con­fed­er­ate flag had un­for­tu­nately come to rep­re­sent.

I spent time in Beasley’s com­pany be­fore and af­ter the flag was low­ered and de­tected not a hint of re­gret or ran­cour about his 1998 elec­tion loss. What mo­ti­vated him was not po­lit­i­cal vin­di­ca­tion or even the jus­tice of a gov­ern­ment right­ing a wrong. It was deeper than that. It was, he said to me, a mo­ti­va­tion to hon­our the de­sire of a so­ci­ety “want­ing and need­ing to love neigh­bour as them­selves.”

I think he meant “neigh­bour” in the deep­est, most per­sonal sense, as it meant to some­one else 2,000 years ago. I think it was meant to in­clude the fa­ther of one of the shoot­ing vic­tims, who was there to see that flag come down.

But I think Beasley meant it, too, as the great un­der­ly­ing prin­ci­ple of all great civ­i­liza­tions, as is the United States.

The for­mer gover­nor’s roots are deep in South Carolina soil. His fam­ily’s history of farm­ing and bank­ing is em­bed­ded in three cen­turies of the state’s story.

In South Carolina, across the United States and even in Canada, we can be thank­ful that one of this fam­ily’s sons had a hand in con­struct­ing history with enough un­shake­able con­vic­tion to turn it from fail­ure to vic­tory. One can­not help but won­der if his hurt­ful loss of 1998 was history plan­ning a 17-year, messy re­demp­tion of one neigh­bour to another.

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AP PHOTO

An hon­our guard from the South Carolina High­way pa­trol low­ers the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag as it is re­moved from the Capi­tol grounds on Fri­day, July 10 in Columbia, S.C. The Con­fed­er­ate flag was low­ered from the grounds of the South Carolina State­house to the cheers of thou­sands, end­ing its 54year pres­ence there.

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