The chang­ing of the flag

Con­fed­er­ate ban­ner took on new mean­ing for many af­ter Charleston

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Michael Muskal Twit­ter: @la­times­muskal

Times are chang­ing in the hearts of Dixie. On Wed­nes­day, Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bent­ley, a Repub­li­can, be­came the first South­ern gover­nor to use his ex­ec­u­tive power to re­move four Con­fed­er­ate ban­ners from a mon­u­ment on the Capi­tol grounds. It was the latest step in the search for a safe spot be­tween her­itage and racism.

“It has be­come a dis­trac­tion all over the coun­try right now,” Bent­ley told re­porters. The Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle f lag, which in mod­ern times be­came a revered sym­bol to many in the South, “is of­fen­sive to some peo­ple be­cause, un­for­tu­nately, it’s like the swastika,” he said. “Some peo­ple have adopted that as part of their hate- filled groups.”

This is a far cry from the time — just last week — when of­fi­cials vig­or­ously de­fended Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols as honor­ing what some saw as a glo­ri­ous rebel past. But when a gun­man — whom author­i­ties iden­tify as a young white su­prem­a­cist who glo­ri­fied the Con­fed­er­acy — opened fire in a his­toric black church in Charleston, S. C., killing nine African Amer­i­cans who were study­ing the Bi­ble, that South­ern world­view rad­i­cally shifted.

In re­cent days, politi­cians in Vir­ginia, South Carolina, Mis­sis­sippi and Ten­nessee have ques­tioned Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols in­clud­ing f lags and stat­ues, while top re­tail­ers such as Wal- Mart and EBay have said they will no longer sell Con­fed­er­ate f lags, belt buck­les, cloth­ing and the like. Even the quin­tes­sen­tial South­ern sport of stock- car rac­ing an­nounced it was walk­ing away from Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols.

“This is sym­bol­ism,” said James For­man Jr., a pro­fes­sor at Yale Law School who has writ­ten about race and the Con­fed­er­ate f lag. “And sym­bol­ism mat­ters.”

The fight over Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols is hardly new, but it took on added ur­gency af­ter the shoot­ings in Charleston, where Dy­lann Roof, 21, is be­ing held on nine mur­der counts. Photos of Roof with Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols have sur­faced along with racist doc­u­ments mourn­ing the loss of white dom­i­na­tion.

The South is filled with me­mo­ri­als to the Con­fed­er­acy, in­clud­ing parks, schools, col­lege mas­cots, street names and stat­ues of fa­mous lead­ers at state capi­tols. The list seems as end­less as the bat­tles over the sym­bol­ism.

In re­cent years, Con­fed­er­ate f lags sparked a fight in Ge­or­gia. There have also been con­tro­ver­sies over the nam­ing of parks for prom­i­nent racists, es­pe­cially Nathan Bed­ford For­rest, a lieu­tenant gen­eral in the Con­fed­er­ate Army and the first grand wiz­ard of the Ku Klux Klan. Ten­nessee of­fi­cials are again call­ing for re­mov­ing his statue from state grounds.

In New Or­leans a bat­tle is brew­ing over the land­mark col­umn and sculp­ture ded­i­cated to Con­fed­er­ate hero Gen. Robert E. Lee, lo­cated at Lee Cir­cle on St. Charles Av­enue. Stat­ues of Jef­fer­son Davis, the only pres­i­dent of the Con­fed­er­acy, are an in­vi­ta­tion to heated de­bates like the one un­der­way about whether one such statue should be re­moved from Ken­tucky’s Capi­tol Ro­tunda.

“It makes sense that ef­forts to change South­ern sym­bols comes on the heels of the Con­fed­er­ate- flag-sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism that killed nine peo­ple in Charleston,” said Ted Ownby, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for the Study of South­ern Cul­ture at the Univer­sity of Mis­sis­sippi. But in a tele­phone in­ter­view, he ar­gued for a broader view of history.

Many peo­ple look at the South’s history and see what his­to­ri­ans call the “cava­lier myth, an old idea that there was some­thing dis­tinc­tive about the South­ern up­per class.” That group, which in­cluded some of the U. S. Found­ing Fathers who owned slaves, saw it­self as ed­u­cated aris­toc­racy.

That view of the South changed over the Civil War. The loss to the North and the fol­low­ing years spawned a vi­sion of the Con­fed­er­acy as a time of brav­ery and sac­ri­fice in de­fense of the home­land. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Ha­ley, a Repub­li­can, re­ferred to those val­ues when she de­scribed the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle f lag as “a sym­bol of re­spect, in­tegrity and duty” for those who con­sider it a me­mo­rial.

But Ha­ley went on to call for the f lag’s re­moval, not­ing: “This f lag, while an in­te­gral part of our past, does not rep­re­sent the fu­ture of our great state.”

While the Charleston killings may have been the im­me­di­ate spark for change, ques­tions about race and vi­o­lence have been build­ing, Ownby said. He traced the start to the Trayvon Martin case, which pushed the is­sue of vi­o­lence against blacks to the fore­front. Dur­ing a 2012 con­fronta­tion in Florida, Martin, an un­armed teenager, was shot to death by Ge­orge Zim­mer­man, who has de­scribed him­self as a light- skinned Latino. Zim­mer­man was ac­quit­ted of sec­ond- de­gree mur­der.

Roof and other su­prem­a­cists also cite the Zim­mer­man case as part of the rea­son they see whites as los­ing stand­ing.

There has also been a range of cases in the last year in­volv­ing po­lice vi­o­lence against blacks, from Fer­gu­son, Mo., to Staten Is­land, N. Y., to Bal­ti­more to North Charleston, S. C. Those, too, have kept the is­sue in the fore­front and have pro­vided a fer­tile back­ground for change, Ownby said.

For­man also cited Charleston but looked be­yond.

“Peo­ple in South Carolina were not just hor­ri­fied by what hap­pened at Emanuel [ African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church], but were also moved by the kind of mercy and com­pas­sion and open­heart­ed­ness that the vic­tims of that crime showed in the af­ter­math,” For­man said. He also men­tioned the slain pas­tor, Cle­menta Pinck­ney, a state sen­a­tor whose body lay in state at the Capi­tol on Wed­nes­day.

“It’s clear that the per­sonal re­la­tion­ship is crit­i­cal here,” For­man said of Pinck­ney and the de­ci­sion to re­move the Con­fed­er­ate f lag, which is pend­ing in the state Leg­is­la­ture. “Peo­ple knew this man and by all ac­counts re­spected him. So some of this is lo­cal.”

For­man also sees the de­ci­sion on the f lag as a ges­ture sim­i­lar to ef­forts to re­move racial slurs from public dis­course.

“Sym­bol­ism is only part of the an­swer,” For­man said. “The same way the N- word has been re­tired, the f lag has been re­tired. It’s not easy, but it is eas­ier than deal­ing with ac­cess to vot­ing, race in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and equal op­por­tu­nity.”

‘ Un­for­tu­nately, it’s like the swastika. Some peo­ple have adopted that as part of their hate- filled groups.’ — Robert J. Bent­ley, gover­nor of Alabama

Martin Swant As­so­ci­ated Press

WORK­ERS TAKE DOWN a Con­fed­er­ate f lag on the grounds of the Alabama state Capi­tol in Mont­gomery, on the or­ders of Gov. Robert J. Bent­ley.

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