“To use Gov. Nikki Haley’s words, it truly is a great day in South Carolina” — that was the text message that awakened me at 7:15 Thursday morning from my cell phone by the bedside. It was followed immediately by other messages from friends near and far who wanted to check in and see what I had to say about the end of the Confederate flag debate and — let us hope — the end of an era.
In the days after the lowering of the Confederate flag in front of the Statehouse in Columbia, much will be written and said about the courage of Gov. Haley and the Republican General Assembly in taking that measure, to which I say, “Bullshit!”
Why did it take the killing of nine good people by a Confederate flag-waving bigot at Emanuel AME Church to open the eyes of these GOPers to what millions of South Carolinians and Americans have known for generations? It matters not how many white people repeat the heritage-not-hate mantra. The Confederate flag has been used by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups for years. The African Americans that integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957, sat at lunch counters in 1960 and 1961, and marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1963 were tormented and threatened by angry racists with their Confederate flags. To say that the flag has nothing to do with hate is profoundly dishonest — the kind of dishonesty that is tolerated only in a deeply dysfunctional society and political system.
As recently as last autumn’s gubernatorial campaign, Haley was asked about the flag in a debate with Democratic candidate Vincent Sheheen and, of course, she took a dive. The irony is that she was so far ahead in the polls that she could have actually taken a courageous stand on the flag. Flag supporters were not going to vote for Sheheen, who had already called for lowering the Confederate banner. Instead, Haley defended the flag in that debate with an absolutely astounding statement: “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
What that says about Nikki Haley and the people who run this state goes far beyond the Confederate flag controversy and to the very heart of what is wrong with this little banana republic.
But now the flag is finally gone. Gov. Haley will bask in the spotlight for a few more days and forever wear the mantel of the political hero. But what about the other people, the angry, aging white people we have seen for weeks, shouting, begging, crying to turn back the clock, to make us believe in their fantasies about the past, about race relations? What will become of them?
Some of them are surely bigots, and they will always use the Confederate flag to express and identify themselves. We will see it flying in their front yards and hanging in the back of their pickup trucks for years to come. But now these poor souls will be more marginal than ever. Now they will not have the governor and General Assembly of South Carolina to hide behind.
But I like to think there are others of good heart and good intentions, waiting to have their eyes opened, waiting for a new day, a new way of looking at the world. They do not fear African Americans so much as they fear the future. They fear a strange and frightening new age, an amorphous, secular world in which not only racial and sexual barriers are coming down, but a world in which their hold on the middle class is becoming ever more tenuous. They are not well-educated people, for the most part, not abstract thinkers. They fear a changing world and their fears are easily manipulated by demagogues and hucksters. For them, the Confederate flag has long been a security blanket, a place of balm and comfort, vaguely associated with traditional religion, family values, gender roles, and more.
We cannot turn the clock back for these people, nor should we try. But we can offer them some measure of security. We can tone down the rhetoric on the flag. It’s gone now. Let it be.
More importantly, we can make it easier to live in South Carolina — easier for everyone. Let’s defy the corporate overlords who rule this state and raise the minimum wage. That was one of Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s projects before he died in the Emanuel AME Massacre. What finer tribute to him than to raise the minimum wage and the standard of living of all South Carolina?
The Confederate flag is finally down. Let’s start acting like a modern industrial society.
Will Moredock is the author of Living in Fear: Race, Politics & the Republican Party in South Carolina.