Time to Take Down
the Confederate Flag?
When you see the Confederate flag, what comes to mind? Do you view
it as a symbol of pride or prejudice, heritage or hate? Those questions
are at the heart of a controversy in Columbia, South Carolina: Should
the Confederate flag fly over the Statehouse? Currently, South Carolina
is the only state to fly the Confederate flag above its Statehouse.
Those in favor of the flag remaining where it is see it as a tribute
to their ancestors who fought to preserve states’ rights during the
Civil War. Those who want it removed claim it represents slavery and
racism. For both sides, the flag has become a powerful symbol.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
began a boycott of South Carolina on January 1 to protest the flag’s
placement. To date, it is estimated that the boycott has cost the
state close to $10 million.
Over the past months, supporters of both sides have staged rallies
to garner support for their point of view. In January, nearly 50,000
people gathered at the state capitol to lobby for the flag’s removal.
“King Day at the Dome: A Rally for Unity” was in part sponsored by
the South Carolina Christian Action Council (SCCAC), of which the
Diocese of Charleston is a member.
Beginning of the Controversy
The Confederate flag
has not always flown atop the Statehouse. It was put there in 1962
to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War. Some critics have
speculated, though, that the flag may have been raised to protest
Two previous attempts
to remove the flag from the dome failed when the House did not act
on the bills. A 1995 law gives the Legislature sole power to remove
On April 12 of this
year, South Carolina’s Senate voted 36-7 to remove the Confederate
flag from the top of the Statehouse Dome and House and Senate chambers.
The flag would be placed behind an existing Statehouse monument honoring
Confederate soldiers, flying from a pole no taller than 20 feet.
The NAACP said the flag
would still be too visible and rejected the plan. As of this writing,
the South Carolina House has not acted on the bill.
Senator Ralph Anderson,
who supported the proposal, said senators “had to work and look at
the whole picture. I felt that we got the best deal that we could
and created an atmosphere that would create better race relationships.”
Fellow Senator Glenn
McConnell added, “We have fought this thing and we have fought this
thing, and the olive branch is now out on both sides.”
South Carolina’s Governor
Jim Hodges supports the removal of the flag, as does former Governor
David Beasley. Beasley attempted to have the flag removed in 1995.
“A flag should be a symbol that unites all of those standing below
it,” Beasley said in a 1996 television appearance.
Power of a Symbol
According to Webster’s
Ninth Collegiate Dictionary, a symbol is “an authoritative
summary of faith or doctrine,” or “something that stands for or suggests
something else by reason of relationship, association, convention
or accidental resemblance.”
Given that definition,
the power of a symbol is derived from the emotion or reaction it elicits.
A powerful example is the swastika. The swastika is a pre-Christian
symbol of good omen, a bringer of luck, prosperity, fertility, protection
and long life. Because of its use by the Nazis, however, most people
now see it as a symbol of hatred.
Bishop Robert J. Baker
of Charleston sent a letter last November to members of his diocese
concerning the issue of the Confederate flag atop the Statehouse.
In the letter, he cited the importance of symbols in the Catholic
faith. He also acknowledged the potential for misinterpretation of
“We Catholics understand
the power of symbols,” he wrote. “Our religious heritage, our worship,
even our buildings are all a rich treasury of symbols. We know that
symbols used well can inspire faith and good works, but used inappropriately
they can divide and destroy. Whatever symbols we use to represent
us should reflect the identities, aspirations and hopes of all the
people of the great State of South Carolina.
“Whatever symbolic meaning
one may choose to attach to the Confederate battle flag, it is clear
that the placement of the flag above the chambers of our State government
will not unite us for good but will continue to foster division and
cripple our future,” he added.
Do South Carolinians
have the right to celebrate their ancestry and the brave men who fought
to defend their beliefs? Yes. They do not, however, have the right
to celebrate it at another person’s expense, which is the result of
flying the Confederate flag above a building that represents all their
citizens, regardless of race, gender, religion, etc. Flying the Confederate
flag over the Statehouse denies that premise. For that reason, the
flag must come down.
Bishop Baker urged members
of his diocese, “I ask you to be active in efforts to remove the flag,
seeking out a more fitting way to celebrate our cultural heritage
and remember our loved ones.”
On a larger scale, we
must work to identify and remove exclusionary symbols in our own lives,
and find a way to celebrate our common heritage.
The issues surrounding
the Confederate flag are complex, and will not be solved by one action.
Removing the flag from the Statehouse dome, however, is a necessary