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Time to Take Down the Confederate Flag?

The Beginning of the Controversy

The Power of a Symbol

Search for Resolution


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.

The 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 desegregation.

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 the flag.

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.

The 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 those symbols.

“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.

Search for Resolution

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 first step.—S.H.B.




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