The Oppression Implied in the Confederate Flag

Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith– forthcoming September 2014, Zondervan.

Less than a year ago, during a gubernatorial debate, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley defended the presence of the Confederate flag on South Carolina state grounds on the basis of two criteria: 1) It had not hurt South Carolina's economy, 2) South Carolina had solved its race problem when it elected her, the first Indian-American female governor, and an African-American U.S. senator.

Then, last Wednesday night, 21-year-old Dylann Roof entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and sat among parishioners for an hour before opening fire and killing nine people, including the pastor. Before he entered Emanuel, Roof had issued a 2,500-word manifesto on his website explaining why he did it. His tone explained that he was introduced to the world of white nationalism through the website of The Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies as one of the oldest hate groups in the United States. Part of the neo-Confederate movement, The Council's heritage and membership harkens back to the White Citizens Councils of the 1950s and 1960s.

Monday, flanked by a multiethnic coalition of legislators, Gov. Haley referenced the April 2015 killing of Walter Scott by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager and Dylann Roof's recent neo-Confederate rampage as she announced to the world: "It is time to move the flag from Capitol grounds."

Throughout the United States, there are a spectrum of responses to Haley's declaration. Seven southern statehouses still fly some version of the Confederate stars and bars over their state houses. According to a recent report by the Washington Post, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee each incorporate key elements of the Confederate flag into their state flags, which still fly high atop the centers of legislative power in their states.

In the moments leading up to Haley's announcement Monday, many political figures dodged the direct question: "Do you think the Confederate flag should be taken down from South Carolina's Capitol grounds?"

Mitt Romney issued an unequivocal call for it to be removed, but others declined to share their personal views . Rather, they harkened back to the cursory language of South Carolina's own secession papers and the primary argument of the Jim Crow South's legal regime: "States' rights." From South Carolina's December 24, 1860 secession through the legislative fight against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, southern states justified Civil War, lynchings, and church bombings under the guise of states' sovereign right to uphold their economic and social orders in whatever way they deemed necessary, including the exploitation, segregation, and subjugation of human beings of African descent — people made in the image of God.

As the governor of the first state to secede from the Union, Haley treaded softly on Monday, explaining: Some "South Carolinians view the flag as a symbol of respect, integrity, and duty. They also see it as a memorial. A way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during time of conflict." But, "for many others in South Carolina," she continued, "the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past."

Haley explained that it is fine for individuals to fly the Confederate flag on their own private property.

"But, the state house is different," she declared.

Why is it different and what is the connection to the deaths of Walter Scott and The Emanuel Nine?

Regardless of one's personal nostalgia for the flag, the so-called Southern cross served as a symbol of the fight to preserve the institution of slavery. It was resurrected 100 years after the Civil War as a national symbol of neo-Confederate defiance in 1961. South Carolina Dixiecrat Sen. Strom Thurman spoke at the flag's centennial ceremony declaring South Carolina's intent to defend white rule despite the gains of the civil rights movement.

Thus, for South Carolina (or any state) to fly the Confederate flag (or any derivative thereof) on state property implies the state is committed to protecting acts of oppression in alignment with Confederate philosophy and intent.

According to Haley, that commitment died on Monday.

"The flag will always be a part of the soil of South Carolina," she said. "… It will not be part of our future."

When she spoke those words, something in me broke.

It was as if my own ancestors — who were exploited, raped, separated, sold away, and silenced in Camden and Charleston — were groaning from their graves, responding to Haley's declaration. Tears flowed as I imagined the weight of nearly 400 years of tyranny lifting from their shoulders — 246 years under the brutality of South Carolina's antebellum slavocracy, 90 years under the tyranny of Jim Crow, and 50 years under the threat of state-sanctioned neo-Confederate sympathy and impunity symbolized and promised by that flag.

Ultimately, it was as if all the generations of my family who slaved in South Carolina were released from the tyranny of a core spiritual lie: the lie that they were not human, that they were chattel, that they were created by God to maintain the Southern economic order, that God created white people to be masters and created them to be servants, that their tears, blood, marriages, children, dreams, deaths, and lives did not matter — not to God, not to the state.

With her words, Haley, in effect, affirmed the Genesis 1:26-27 truth: People of African descent are made in the image of God. They too were created with the divine call and capacity to exercise dominion. And with that dominion, they have spoken through the democratic process and others have joined them. They have declared they want the flag taken down. They have declared, "Black lives matter!" And so they will in South Carolina. All lives will matter in South Carolina. That is the hope.

May God make it so in South Carolina … and Alabama and Arkansas and Florida and Georgia and Mississippi and North Carolina and Tennessee … and St. Louis and Cleveland and New York City and Colorado and California … and everywhere.


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