It’s hard to explain how I feel when I see the rebel flag. The emotional bucket overflows with anger, trepidation, sorrow, a perverted pride and apathy. As hard as I try not to make assumptions about whoever is flying the flag or driving around with it mounted on their truck, my mind can not hold back the painful images of the past generations…. and the current one. The nine racially motivated murders of last week, have written a new chapter in the annals of race violence in this country. And at the center of it all, proudly displayed in images of the killer, the rebel flag.
When I moved to South Carolina in 1996, albeit from the southern state of Virginia, I was somewhat taken aback by the frequency of which I saw the flag. It was on vehicles, displayed on homes, and worn on t-shirts. Like grits and sweet tea, the flag was just part of the culture, an enduring symbol of all things southern. This never changed how I felt about it, but it did teach me to give individuals a certain amount of grace and realize that not everyone who embraced the flag embraced prejudice and supremacy alike.
I can remember visiting a teammate’s home for the first time my sophomore year. Frank, a white offensive guard on my high school football team, had quickly become my closest friend, welcoming me, the new guy, when others weren’t so quick to do so. As I walked into his room, I froze, staring uncomfortably at the large Rebel flag, hanging above his bed. I remember the lump in my throat as I briefly attempted to convey in the most non-condemning way, what the flag represented to me and many others like me. Because of the lingering heaviness of the moment, I can’t recall much after that but I do remember how valued I felt, when I returned to Frank’s home some time later and the flag was gone! He didn’t have to, but because he cared about our friendship, because he cared about me, he empathetically removed the offensive banner on my behalf and maybe for the first time heard how painful that symbol could be. That day was a turning point in our relationship and today; Frank continues to be one of my best friends.
It should not take the brutal, senseless killings of innocent black Americans in a church by a young white man, to ensure the removal of the confederate battle flag from the State House grounds where it has flown in proud defiance of the civil rights movement since the 1960’s. If the flag wasn’t problematic before this heinous crime it should not be problematic now, and to hastily remove it in response to this slaughter, although a sympathetic (and economic) gesture, does not address the heart of the matter. In my estimation it is indeed the HEART, that is the matter. Displaying the confederate flag is not inherently wrong. This is not NECESSARILY an issue on which we can take a moral stance. It is not a simple right or wrong dilemma. I understand that for some, the confederate battle flag does not evoke sentiments of racism or supremacy; it is simply a tribute to their heritage, ancestors, and homeland. For others, including the killer, it means much more and for others it is a hiding place for passive racism and group “identity.” It is without a doubt, however, a litmus test, exposing our willingness to deny our liberty, our freedom, to fly the flag of our choice, for the sake of offending our countrymen whose SHARED HERITAGE is conversely stained with death, injustice, rape, terror and inferiority.
If we remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol for any reason other than a change in the hearts of South Carolinians, we may as well leave it be. This is not the time for political statements and worrying about national perception. But if we, like my friend Frank, finally listen to the cries and concerns of those we say we care about, soften our hearts, and choose to lay our liberties aside to assuage the pain of our brothers, the only suitable option would be a unanimous decision to remove the flag from the public grounds at the Palmetto State Capitol. The past and it’s people, as acclaimed or afflicted as they may be, should always be remembered. But it is difficult to completely “move forward” if painful, divisive icons continue to stand unchallenged.
Sometimes, tragedies have a way of jolting us, laying the truth about us individually and collectively, stark naked for all to see. The outpouring for Charleston has been nothing short of extraordinary and inspiring. Sometimes it takes one person, one neighborhood, one city, and one state to show the unifying love of Christ to the world. As a canyon is carved by the flow of a river long dried up, may the passion of this week cut deep, leaving a permanent change in hearts and souls long after the emotion has gone.