It is a new day in our society! Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Republican Senator and 2016 Presidential Candidate Lindsey Graham, and even 2012 Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney have called for the Confederate Flag in South Carolina to be removed. Walmart, the largest retailer in the country, has announced it will no longer continue to sell the flag in any capacity.
It is such an incredible day.
But something doesn’t feel quite right.
What brought out these champions, these advocates for justice? What has allowed their eyes to suddenly develop X-Ray vision and see the Confederate Flag still waving in all of its glorious symbolism of oppression, slavery, injustice, racial ignorance/intolerance (or as Jon Stewart called it “racial wallpaper”), and an insult to African-Americans not only in South Carolina and around the United States? The flag has been there for years. Students, residents, early politicians, and pastors have been asking for its removal since…its resurrection by KKK during the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Were their voices suddenly heard? Was there deep seated conviction deposited into the hearts of the leaders around the nation? Did Black Lives suddenly Matter?
What happened? Two things:
First, it only took 9 more deaths of African-Americans—mostly women—in a church during one of the worst racially heightened times in our country since the Civil Rights Movement, and those deaths needed to come at the hands of a tangible representation of what Black people have said the flag represents.
Second, it’s an election year. News outlets have “struggled to discern” the reasons Rev. Clementa Pinckney and his eight members lost their lives. Last week, one out of the almost twenty presidential candidates had the courage to say, “This was an act of racism.” (To call it “terrorism” would more difficult than me developing super powers.) It took Jon Stewart, the combined efforts of diverse people groups on Social Media, and generations of prayer, in order for elected officials—and those hoping to earn your vote—to realize this is not the time to rest on their laurels. To every Asian, Latino, South Asian, Black, Native American, White person who doesn’t benefit from white privilege, and especially to women all over the world, we have seen once again history repeat itself. Our businesses and politicians will move swiftly only economic and political capital can be lost.
In short, Bad Press Matters.
Some people will say I am being overly pessimistic, that this is a win, that as a Christian, I should rejoice that justice has come in some small way. Don’t mishear me. I am overjoyed the Confederate Flag will (hopefully) be removed from South Carolina, but I cannot call it a victory. The fact that the flag has been publicly displayed and sold in the United States some 150 years after the Civil War ended is heart-breaking. It is a symbol of one of the most evil periods in American History, and the atrocities committed against Black people in this country in the “name” of that flag have been ignored. (By the way, the confederate flag is publicly displayed in other places as well including the University of Texas Football Stadium, as several UT Black Faculty have stated for years.) Beyond the flag, there are statues of Confederate Soldiers—Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee in Austin—as well as streets named after these people.
I cannot tell you what happens in my heart, my mind, my soul, when I see a Confederate Flag. To walk on a college campus that I love and see statues of men who gave their lives in the hopes that I would be a slave right now, that if they were alive would count me as three fifths of a person. It is a daily reminder that while I live here, I am not as welcomed as my peers.
Again, I am grateful progress is being made on this issue, but there are two things that should concern us all:
The Motivation for Removing the Flag. Why has the flag flown this long without consequence? Why were the cries of so many people of various ethnic groups unheard? Why was it not removed as soon as the motives behind the Charleston Shooting occurred? Why did our leaders suddenly decide it should be removed, giving a complete reversal of their words in 48 hours? If the flag had been taken down apart from the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, if it had been taken down June 17-20th that would be different. If the Mayor or Governor of Charleston and South Carolina, respectively, would have taken down the Confederate Flag at the first press conference, we would be rejoice a lot more. But it didn’t happen. There was the full intention for that and our community “to heal” without addressing any of the public, overt racism that directly led to the tragedy. It took an election year and the rumblings of boycotts on social media in order for this grave injustice to be publicly addressed.
The Motivation Behind the Flag. If it takes Bad Press and not Black Blood—or the blood of any innocent victim of any ethnicity or gender—in order to be heard, we fail to see the reality of deeply ingrained racist ideologies in our society. The Confederate Flag is a piece of cloth, but it is a symbol of something far more sinister: the long unchallenged Goliath of Racism in American society. Like the Army of Israel that ran away from Goliath for 40 days unwilling to challenge that larger than life bully, so too do we as a country continue to run from not only confronting racism, we can’t even call it racism. If we are unwilling to confront racism in all its ugly forms, then removing the Confederate Flag is merely fruit not the root, the product and not the cause of the problem.
History differs greatly on the last few years of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. Some state that he lost support nationally in the country when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. Others believe his influence continued to grow right up until his death. He was interviewed on The Mike Douglas Show five months before his assassination, and was asked he if was concerned about losing support for speaking against Vietnam War. His response is most appropriate as we look at what’s happening this week in our country:
You stand up for what is just because it is just and right. I think it was T.S. Elliot who said, ‘There is no greater heresy than to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.’ A lot of people do the right thing for the wrong reasons and I submit that anyone that would stop supporting Civil Rights because of the war on the part of some leaders ended up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. They were never truly committed to Civil Rights in the beginning.
If we as a nation are willing to remove the Confederate Flag because we want to confront racism, wonderful! But if we are choosing to remove the flag because of Bad Press, nothing has changed.
When we look back on this time years now, may it be said of us we did the right thing for the right reasons.
Sean M. Watkins