“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”
That’s an observation widely credited to Winston Churchill, though it’s one he may or may not have ever made. Whoever said it, the truth of the axiom has seldom been more obvious than now, as we watch the fall of the Confederate battle flag. It is too early to say whether this will prove lasting. But the signs certainly point toward a seismic shift.
In South Carolina, where the Confederacy was born, a motion to allow debate on removing the flag from the grounds of the state Capitol passed by a vote of 103-10. Alabama has already removed its flag. Meantime, a number of major retailers, including Amazon, eBay, and Arkansas-based Walmart, have announced they will no longer carry the flag. Perhaps most amazing, Valley Forge Flag, a 133-year-old flag maker in Pennsylvania, has said it will no longer manufacture it.
We appear to be on the verge of a long-overdue national consensus that this American swastika is unfit for human consumption. And to think: All it took was the blood of nine innocent people.
Ever since 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof shot up Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the ground has been shifting beneath that flag, so beloved of the white, conservative South — especially after images emerged of Roof posing with one. “God help South Carolina if we fail to achieve the goal of removing the flag,” said South Carolina senator and presidential aspirant Lindsey Graham last week. He said this just days after telling CNN the flag was “part of who we are.”
The suddenness of the change in attitude toward that flag is bracing, reminiscent, in an odd way, of when the Berlin Wall fell: Nobody saw it coming — it happened. That said, it is hard to be wholly invested in cheering what is happening here.
Consider: The Confederate battle flag was not somehow made more racist by Roof’s alleged rampage. Notwithstanding claims by Graham and others that it has somehow been misused as a racist symbol by the likes of Roof, the fact is, the thing was used as such from the moment the first thread of the first flag was sewn in support of a treasonous regime that was, to borrow Mississippi’s words, “thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”
The flag was certainly understood as racist — that was the whole point — by those who resurrected it to signal massive resistance to the civil rights movement. It is still understood that way; why else is it ubiquitous at white supremacist rallies?
So what happened at Emanuel did not change the flag’s meaning; it only made that meaning harder to ignore. And while its fall is significant, you have to wonder if it really marks a fundamental change in the mind of the white, conservative South. Particularly since you can’t turn around in Dixie without running into some road, bridge, statue, or park honoring some individual who took up arms against the U.S. government in the name of perpetuating slavery — or without meeting someone eager to rationalize that, hiding behind abstracts like “honor” and “duty” to avoid admitting what the Confederacy really was.
The tragedy at Emanuel has forced a moment of clarity into this fog of cognitive dissonance. In days to come, we’ll see just how much that’s worth in terms of real change. Because at some point, the people of the white, conservative South must themselves take responsibility for their own racial education, for facing — and growing from — the truth about their beloved Confederacy.
Consider that it took an act of mass murder before they were willing to reckon honestly with their flag and its meaning. Yes, one is pleased to see that finally come to pass.
But the price of enlightenment seems awfully high.
(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)