The past may not be past, as William Faulkner once put it. But it sure seems to be leaving.
As I watched the broadcast of the Confederate battle flag being brought down from its post on the South Carolina State House grounds Friday morning, my thoughts went to Gen. Robert E. Lee, who surely would have raised a toast to this new day.
Yes, you read correctly.
The renowned general who surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in 1865 was no fan of the flag after the war. Not only did he encourage his fellow Confederates to furl their flags, he didn’t want any displayed at his funeral. None was.
Lee also opposed the building of memorials to Confederate soldiers, fearing that they would stir more division and resentment. Thus, we can infer that he would have been disappointed by the flag’s resurrection in South Carolina and elsewhere. He was prescient in imagining the sort of divisiveness we’ve witnessed as relentless rebels stage heritage claims and others wave the banner as a symbol of racial hostility, if not hate.
Friday’s ceremony in Columbia was brief, dignified and profoundly moving for the many gathered, as well as those watching from afar. Gov. Nikki Haley, surrounded by fellow officials and lawmakers, looked resplendent in a white suit that was reminiscent of a white flag offered in surrender and in peace. I don’t mean the South’s surrender to the North, or of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to the NAACP, which has fought for the lowering of the flag in South Carolina for more than 20 years.
It was the surrender of injured pride to the cause of the greater good. It was the sublimation of “I” for the liberation of “we.”
South Carolina’s better angels were tapped by the departing souls of nine people gunned down while praying in the historic Mother Emanuel Church not far from where the first shot of the Civil War was fired. Only silence can capture the totality of so much suffering, forgiveness, surrender, reconciliation and grace.
Adding to the layers of symbolism, it was Haley, an Indian-American and the first female governor of the state, who called for the flag to come down. Although she once supported the flag as a part of history, Haley recognized the urgency of its removal as so many others finally did. It may have been overdue, as critics who never take a vacation will say, but it is done.
Personally, I have found an abundance of peace in this gesture. I know I’m not alone in having sometimes felt embarrassed to say I’m from South Carolina, especially knowing the eye-rolling that inevitably follows. Today, not so. Embarrassment has been displaced by pride in the unity and fellowship demonstrated these past few weeks. I am especially proud of my state’s leaders, who asserted by their actions that we are, first, fellow Americans.
To non-South Carolinians, this may seem much ado about something that never should have been. As in, what took you so long? Or, why was the Confederate flag raised there in the first place? This is a rhetorical question because we know that it was put there in 1961 to protest the unraveling of Jim Crow. Though officially flown to celebrate the state’s centennial, the flag was never lowered.
Ever since, it was an insistent, rippling reminder to all who passed that South Carolina “officially” preferred the Old South, which did, in fact, include human bondage. As such, it was a symbolic codification of an attitude that can only be called racist. Its final insult was to wave above the casket bearing state Sen. Clementa Pinckney as his body was carried to the Capitol building one last time.
Effective Friday, the hell-no-we-ain’t-fergettin' crowd no longer controls the message. Whether this symbolic gesture will have a lasting effect remains to be seen, but I predict it will.
Already, the University of South Carolina is busy creating a program modeled after the University of Mississippi’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. Susan Glisson, executive director of the Winter program, is meeting with USC officials later this month to explain how “The Welcome Table” template works to facilitate honest, productive conversations among blacks and whites at the local level.
The operative philosophy, says Glisson, is the politics of invitation rather than the politics of opposition. Perhaps when Glisson wraps up in South Carolina, she could visit the U.S. Congress.
In the meantime, may the Emanuel Nine rest in peace — and long may the American flag wave.
© 2015, Washington Post Writers Group