Low­er­ing the flag of di­vi­sive­ness

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - Kath­leen­parker@wash­post.com

The past may not be past, as Wil­liam Faulkner put it. But it sure seems to be leav­ing. As I watched the broad­cast of the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag be­ing brought down from its post on the South Carolina state­house grounds Fri­day morn­ing, my thoughts went to Gen. Robert E. Lee, who surely would have raised a toast to this new day. Yes, you read cor­rectly. The renowned gen­eral who sur­ren­dered the Con­fed­er­ate Army of North­ern Vir­ginia in 1865 was no fan of the flag af­ter the war. Not only did he en­cour­age his fel­low Con­fed­er­ates to furl their flags, but he also didn’t want any dis­played at his fu­neral. None was.

Lee also op­posed the build­ing of me­mo­ri­als to Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers, fear­ing that they would stir more di­vi­sion and re­sent­ment. Thus, we can in­fer that he would have been dis­ap­pointed by the flag’s res­ur­rec­tion in South Carolina and else­where. He was pre­scient in imag­in­ing the sort of di­vi­sive­ness we’ve wit­nessed as re­lent­less rebels stage her­itage claims and oth­ers wave the ban­ner as a sym­bol of racial hos­til­ity, if not hate.

Fri­day’s cer­e­mony in Columbia was brief, dig­ni­fied and pro­foundly mov­ing for the many gath­ered, as well as those watch­ing from afar. Gov. Nikki Ha­ley (R), sur­rounded by fel­low of­fi­cials and law­mak­ers, looked re­splen­dent in a white suit that was rem­i­nis­cent of a white flag of­fered in sur­ren­der and in peace. I don’t mean the South’s sur­ren­der to the North, or of the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans to the NAACP, which has fought for the low­er­ing of the flag in South Carolina for more than 20 years.

It was the sur­ren­der of in­jured pride to the cause of the greater good. It was the sublimation of “I” for the lib­er­a­tion of “we.”

South Carolina’s bet­ter an­gels were tapped by the de­part­ing souls of nine peo­ple gunned down while pray­ing in the his­toric Mother Emanuel church not far from where the first shot of the Civil War was fired. Only si­lence can cap­ture the to­tal­ity of so much suf­fer­ing, for­give­ness, sur­ren­der, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and grace.

Adding to the lay­ers of sym­bol­ism, it was Ha­ley, an In­dian Amer­i­can and the first fe­male gover­nor of the state, who called for the flag to come down. Although she once sup­ported the flag as a part of history, Ha­ley rec­og­nized the ur­gency of its re­moval as so many oth­ers fi­nally did. It may have been over­due, as crit­ics who never take a va­ca­tion will say, but it is done. Re­lief. Per­son­ally, I have found an abun­dance of peace in this ges­ture. I know I’m not alone in hav­ing some­times felt em­bar­rassed to say I’m from South Carolina, es­pe­cially know­ing the eye-rolling that in­evitably fol­lows. To­day, not so. Em­bar­rass­ment has been dis­placed by pride in the unity and fel­low­ship demon­strated these past few weeks. I am es­pe­cially proud of my state’s lead­ers, who as­serted by their ac­tions that we are, first, fel­low Amer­i­cans.

To non-South Carolini­ans, this may seem much ado about some­thing that never should have been. As in, what took you so long? Or, why was the Con­fed­er­ate flag raised there in the first place? This is a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion be­cause we know that it was put there in 1961 to protest the un­rav­el­ing of Jim Crow. Though of­fi­cially flown to com­mem­o­rate the Civil War cen­ten­nial, the flag was never low­ered.

Ever since, it was an in­sis­tent, rip­pling re­minder to all who passed that South Carolina “of­fi­cially” pre­ferred the Old South, which did, in fact, in­clude hu­man bondage. As such, it was a sym­bolic cod­i­fi­ca­tion of an at­ti­tude that can only be called racist. Its fi­nal in­sult was to wave above the casket bear­ing state Sen. Cle­menta Pinck­ney as his body was car­ried to the capi­tol build­ing one last time.

Ef­fec­tive Fri­day, the hell-no-we-ain’t-fer-get­tin’ crowd no longer con­trols the mes­sage. Whether this sym­bolic ges­ture will have a last­ing ef­fect re­mains to be seen, but I pre­dict it will.

Al­ready, the Univer­sity of South Carolina is busy cre­at­ing a pro­gram mod­eled af­ter the Univer­sity of Mis­sis­sippi’s Wil­liam Win­ter In­sti­tute for Racial Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Su­san Glis­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Win­ter pro­gram, is meet­ing with USC of­fi­cials later this month to ex­plain how “The Welcome Ta­ble’’ tem­plate works to fa­cil­i­tate hon­est, pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions among blacks and whites at the lo­cal level.

The op­er­a­tive phi­los­o­phy, Glis­son says, is the pol­i­tics of in­vi­ta­tion rather than the pol­i­tics of op­po­si­tion. Per­haps when Glis­son wraps up in South Carolina, she could visit the U.S. Congress.

In the mean­time, may the Emanuel Nine rest in peace — and long may the Amer­i­can flag wave.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.