Back in ‘61, South Carolina legislators put a Confederate battle flag on the grounds of the state capitol, as a big “up yours” to the federal government. It wasn’t considered a huge deal at the time, or even for quite a while afterwards. Several Southern states still have remnants of the stars and bars in their flags. Georgia’s state flag contained it verbatim until 2001, and Mississippi’s flag features it to this very day. Proponents call it “heritage, not hate.”
On the other hand, Washington and Lee University took the battle flag down from Lee Chapel, noted final resting place of Confederate general (and post-war W&L president) Robert E. Lee, in 2014. You will find not find it officially displayed in the town of Lexington, birthplace of Stonewall Jackson and location of Lee Chapel, since the city banned it in 2011. You will also not find it at Arlington Cemetery, formerly Lee’s own plantation. Why is this?
The Confederate battle flag is the sign of a state which was an enemy to the Union. After Reconstruction, they all but disappeared, and only really began to reappear after the assault on Jim Crow laws beginning in the 1930s, and continuing into the 1960s, when the South Carolina state legislature put it up. The flag is a symbol of all-white juries bald-facedly acquitting cold-blooded murderers of black children in the face of insurmountable evidence. Of multiple bombings of Dr. Martin Luther King’s private residence. Of states so terrified of integration that they re-wrote their own constitutions to shut down their own school systems rather than let black children go to school with white children.
Regardless of what claim it may have to being a symbol of heritage in addition to its undoubted hateful legacy, it’s hard to argue that the flag is appropriate for a capitol. Shouldn’t state symbols unify rather than divide? If the city of Lexington, Virginia, grave site of Stonewall Jackson as well as Lee, can ban display of the battle flag on city property, then why must South Carolina still fly it in an official capacity?
What’s more, the flag used now is not even historical — the Confederacy started out with “stars and bars” quite similar to the flag of the Union. Later designs replaced the circle of stars in the top left with the well-known cross motif, but the Duke brothers never used the official Confederate flag.
If a majority of South Carolinians really want to assert that “the South will rise again,” which itself seems questionable, they should advocate for a new and more accurate flag to be put up. But protesters in Charleston and elsewhere may rightfully assert the rebel cross stands for racism and Ku Klux Klan terrorism as much as anything else. Either way, the battle flag must come down.