Con­fed­er­ate flag, de­spite mas­sacre, still flies high


Flags were fly­ing at half-staff Thurs­day in South Carolina af­ter the cold-blooded killing of nine black peo­ple in an his­toric African-Amer­i­can church in Charleston — with one no­table ex­cep­tion.

Out­side the leg­is­la­ture in the state cap­i­tal Columbia, the racially di­vi­sive Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag still flies high, re­new­ing de­bate over its sym­bol­ism more than 150 years af­ter the Civil War de­feat of the slave-hold­ing rebel South.

Dy­lann Roof, the 21-year-old white male sus­pected of car­ry­ing out the Emanuel African Epis­co­pal Methodist Church blood­bath, was one of many South­ern Amer­i­cans who iden­ti­fied with the 13-star saltire in red, white and blue.

In a photo posted on Twit­ter by a South Carolina tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist Thurs­day, Roof is seen astride a 1990s Hyundai sedan that bears a “Con­fed­er­ate States of Amer­ica” cer­e­mo­nial bumper tag that promi­nently fea­tures the flag.

Roof was ap­pre­hended Thurs­day in North Carolina in the same ve­hi­cle and re­turned to Charleston to face charges.

By co­in­ci­dence, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thurs­day ruled 5-4 that Texas did not vi­o­late the Con­sti­tu­tion’s free-speech pro­vi­sion when it de­nied a re­quest from the 30,000-mem­ber Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans group for a stateap­proved Con­fed­er­ate flag li­cense plate.

‘Sad day’

“This is a sad day for the First Amend­ment and for mu­tual re­spect and bridge-build­ing among Amer­i­cans of dif­fer­ent view­points,” the or­ga­ni­za­tion said in a state­ment.

Oth­ers fo­cused out­rage on the South Carolina state house, where the Con­fed­er­ate flag re­mained at full height even as the U.S. and South Carolina flags were low­ered in mourn­ing.

“Moral cow­ardice re­quires choice and ac­tion,” wrote Ta-Ne­hisi Coates, an AfricanAmer­i­can na­tional cor­re­spon­dent for The At­lantic mag­a­zine, blogged on Thurs­day. “Take down the flag. Take it down now.”

Alas, that’s eas­ier said than done. By law, state of­fi­cials say, only the en­tire South Carolina leg­is­la­ture can de­cide if and when the flag can be low­ered.

One of the vic­tims of Wed­nes­day’s at­tack on the Emanuel church’s evening Bi­ble class was its se­nior pas­tor Cle­menta Pinck­ney, 41, a state sen­a­tor since 2000 and a lower-house mem­ber be­fore that.

Sup­port­ers of the Con­fed­er­ate flag con­sider it a val­ued to­ken of en­dur­ing South­ern pride and her­itage, while crit­ics see it as a sym­bol of racism and white supremacy.

‘Re­gard­less of race’

“The Con­fed­er­ate Bat­tle Flag rep­re­sents all South­ern, and even North­ern, Con­fed­er­ates re­gard­less of race or re­li­gion and is the sym­bol of less gov­ern­ment, less taxes and the right of the peo­ple to gov­ern them­selves,” says Dixie Out­fit­ters, a Vir­ginia-based re­tailer of Con­fed­er­ateth­emed mer­chan­dise.

A na­tion­wide poll by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter in 2011 in­di­cated that nine per­cent of Amer­i­cans felt pos­i­tive upon see­ing the Con­fed­er­ate flag, against 30 per­cent who said they re­acted neg­a­tively and 58 per­cent who felt nei­ther way.

But among blacks, 41 per­cent told Pew said they re­acted neg­a­tively to the sight of the flag — such is its power to in­voke the mem­ory of an­te­bel­lum slav­ery and the decades of harsh racial seg­re­ga­tion that fol­lowed the Civil War.

Sen­ti­ments are even stronger in South Carolina, where the open­ing shots of the Civil War were fired in April 1861 at Fort Sumter in Charleston har­bor. ( The city it­self was the Amer­i­can cap­i­tal of the transat­lantic slave trade, with 40 per­cent of en­slaved Africans pass­ing through it.)

In a 2014 poll for the State news­pa­per in Columbia, three out of four white South Carolina res­i­dents said the Con­fed­er­ate flag should keep fly­ing out­side the state house — com­pared to 61 per­cent of blacks who wanted to see it go.

Banned in Cal­i­for­nia

In Cal­i­for­nia, since Jan­uary this year, the Con­fed­er­ate flag can­not be dis­played by state author­i­ties, un­der a law ini­ti­ated by a black state leg­is­la­tor whose mother once came across the ban­ner for sale in a state house gift shop.

Mis­sis­sippi, on the other hand, re­mains the only state that fea­tures the Con­fed­er­ate saltire on its of­fi­cial state flag, where it ap­pears in the can­ton. An at­tempt to change it was soundly de­feated in a 2001 ref­er­en­dum.

The Anti-Defama­tion League, best known for tack­ling anti-Semitism, says the Con­fed­er­ate flag is pop­u­lar among white su­prem­a­cists in both the United States and abroad.

But it adds on its web­site: “Be­cause of the con­tin­ued use of the flag by non-ex­trem­ists, one should not au­to­mat­i­cally as­sume that dis­play of the flag is racist or white su­prem­a­cist in na­ture. The sym­bol should only be judged in con­text.”


The South Carolina and Amer­i­can flags fly at half mast as a Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag un­furls be­low at the Con­fed­er­ate Mon­u­ment in Columbia, South Carolina on Thurs­day, June 18.

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