This is a strange moment. On the one hand, the last several years have witnessed a truly remarkable change in the nation’s approach to same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court’s Friday decision seals one of the most rapid transformations in American public opinion in memory, ending with the creation of nothing less than a new constitutional right to marriage equality. Yea, equal protection!
On the other hand, we are sliding far backwards on matters such as voting rights, the police state, and substantive economic change. It’s thus worth clearly tagging one of the implications of President Obama’s Friday eulogy of Clementa Pinckney, the state senator murdered (with eight others) by a white supremacist terrorist on June 17. In calling for the open and public acknowledgment that the Confederate flag stood for slavery, Obama lent great momentum to a vital re-interpretation of American history in our public life.
“For many — black and white — that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. . . . As people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge, . . . the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. . . . Removing the flag from this state’s capitol . . . would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong.”
This interpretation has gained such ground that it emerged, a bit oddly, as the key consequence of the Charleston massacre. Some have expressed concern that the flag issue has diverted attention from the true concerns the tragedy raises. While I find that critique valid, it does not obviate the significance of what is happening. We are, I suspect, witnessing one of those moments when a new consensus is emerging about how we make sense of an important part of our past.
For years, flag wars have raged, as historian Robert Bonner has pointed out. For just as long, proponents and opponents of displaying symbols of the Confederacy have existed in an uneasy detente, with occasional flare-ups. By and large, it’s been a stalemate. Flags have remained over many southern statehouses, and Confederate heroes’ names continue to adorn public property.
Consider what headway has looked like under these circumstances. In 1995, a statue of black tennis star Arthur Ashe (who died of AIDS in 1993) was added to those of five Confederate heroes adorning Monument Avenue in his native Richmond. The move provoked a firestorm of protest, mostly by those fearful of offending “the historic sensibilities of Richmond’s Confederate-American population.” Instead of honoring Ashe, one critic complained, “they ought to honor the blacks who fought for the Confederacy.”
The “black Confederates” argument was a canard even in 1995, but it is facing tough battles today (kudos to Kevin M. Levin’s Civil War memory blog for frequently spearheading this fight). So, too, the entire Confederate heritage movement. I can’t recall a time when so much public pressure has been arrayed so forcefully against the flag and other symbols of Confederate history. “Heritage, not hate” is simply not cutting it anymore. When a Republican governor in South Carolina grudgingly acquiesces to removing the flag, something important has happened.