National Debate Over the Confederate Flag



Not long ago, the idea of removing the flag from official premises would have been unthinkable.

A little more than two weeks after the killings in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, perpetrated by a young white supremacist, a debate is shaking America at its foundation. Is the Confederate flag a racist symbol or a symbol of the past? Since the shooting that took the lives of nine African-Americans, including the pastor of the Emanuel Church, Clementa Pinckley, himself a senator of this state in the Deep South, the black community along with activists of all racial origins have used this tragedy to demand the removal of the flag from all official buildings, because it carries a racist and divisive message.

Republican Governor Nikki Haley, who has so far not been inclined to defend this type of cause, urged South Carolina’s general assembly to ban the controversial symbol. This gesture was seen as heroic. This contrasted with the timid reactions of the Republican candidates for the White House. Barack Obama has decided that it is time America gets rid of this symbol reminiscent of a misguided combat, one in favor of slavery.

In a vote that would have seemed unthinkable six months ago, the South Carolina Senate followed his lead on Monday and approved the removal of the controversial flag, which still flies above an American Civil War memorial monument on the promenade in Columbia, the capital. Among the senators was Republican Paul Thurmond, son of national segregationist figure Strom Thurmond, who said the following before the vote: “It is time to acknowledge our past, atone for our sins, and work for a better future. That future cannot be built on symbols of war, hate, and divisiveness.” Tuesday, the lower house had to vote on the same subject, but the issue seemed less certain and the debate remained passionate.

Negative Reactions

Caught up in the turmoil, other southern states began to introspect, particularly those which have the Confederate symbol on their flags. This is the case in Mississippi, where politicians are calling for change. It was the scene of violent race riots in 1962 following the admission, by decision of the Supreme Court, of the first black student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, which had a very conservative reputation.

The question of symbols associated with the Confederacy at the university has changed quite a bit, particularly within their sports teams. A few years ago, the football team at Ole Miss, The Rebels, had as their mascot Colonel Reb, dressed in a Confederate uniform and mounted on a horse named Traveller, the same as that of Robert Lee, the ex-general of the Confederate army. The flag itself was regularly used until it was banned at matches in 1997. Due to poor performance and the inability to attract good African-American players, the controversial mascot was abandoned.

It’s impossible to have a debate about the flag without extending it to the Civil War. Was it above all else a struggle to unite the country, as many American students have learned? Garry Gallagher, history professor at the University of Virginia, is adamant that one cannot talk about the Civil War without reminding oneself that those who were fighting for the South were defending a republic based on slavery. Was it at first a crusade from the North against slavery? Certainly not, says the historian.

Negative reactions are no less aggressive. Last weekend, a number of spectators at the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing or NASCAR races in Daytona waved the Confederate flag proudly. On July 18, the Ku Klux Klan will gather on the promenade in Columbia, South Carolina to defend the flag and supremacist ideals to prevent “white genocide.” Supremacist websites have experienced 10 times more visitors. Sites consulted by Dylann Roof, the Charleston alleged killer, charged Tuesday with nine murders.

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