It’s as if we stepped into a time machine and went 15 years back into the past.
The governing body of a southern state displays a Confederate flag. The flag is denounced as being hurtful to black citizens. There are demands that the flag be taken down from its public place.
So it was in South Carolina last week when a white terrorist shot and killed nine black people in Charleston, telling the victims, “you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country . . . I have to do what I have to do.”
On the day after the killings, the Confederate flag on the capitol grounds in Columbia was still flying high, even though American and state flags had been lowered.
There were outcries that the display was an insult to the victims, but the flag stayed up. State law provides that the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capitol can be lowered only if there is a two-thirds vote by the Legislature.
I didn’t think the flag would be removed in a conservative state that was the first to secede in the Civil War, but there were indications on Monday that it might be. Gov. Nikki Haley, several days after the shooting took place, asked the South Carolina legislature to take it down.
The controversy stirred memories of 2000 and 2001, when there were heated political struggles in three southern states over the display of the Confederate banner: South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi.
South Carolina’s lawmakers agreed back then to remove the flag from atop the capitol dome, but relocated the battle flag to a nearby location. Mississippi held a referendum on whether to strike the Confederate emblem from its state flag; the vote was 64 percent in favor of keeping it.
In Georgia, Gov. Roy Barnes did some backroom maneuvering to secure legislative approval of a new state flag that greatly de-emphasized the Confederate emblem that had been the central element of the former flag.
“In the life of politics, you have to do what you think is best,” Barnes said after the legislative vote. “I found out a long time ago people, even though they may not agree with you 100 percent, they will stay with you.”
Barnes could not have been more wrong. Conservative white voters, especially in rural areas of Georgia, were outraged by the flag change, and Barnes was defeated when he ran for reelection in 2002.
Which brings us back to the present, where similar arguments are being made that the flag in Columbia should be taken down.
One of the most eloquent pleas came from Russell Moore, an official of the Southern Baptist Convention. “The Confederate battle flag may mean many things, but with those things it represents a defiance against abolition and against civil rights,” Moore wrote. “The symbol was used to enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night.
“That sort of symbolism is out of step with the justice of Jesus Christ. The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire. White Christians, let’s listen to our African-American brothers and sisters.”
Moore makes a compelling argument for striking the flag, as do those who say the Charleston shootings should encourage politicians to enact laws that would make it more difficult for terrorists and deranged persons to have access to firearms.
The gun laws will probably remain unchanged. If elected officials would not change these laws after the slaughter of 20 school kids in Connecticut three years ago, it’s not realistic to think they would change them now.
The political fates of Barnes and Zell Miller are examples of how dangerous it can be for a Southern official to try to get rid of the Confederate flag. Miller was one of Georgia’s most popular governors ever, but he nearly lost his reelection bid after he tried unsuccessfully to have the Georgia flag changed in 1993.
It’s sad that it would take the murder of nine innocent people to bring about the removal of the controversial flag, but that’s the way the world works.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.