I stand before you, honored and humbled that you would hear my words. If I have a title worth mentioning, it is “father of a young South Carolinian.”
Today I address many parents—mothers and fathers upon whose shoulders weigh the responsibility of interpreting for our children the many active symbols that surround us.
Not just interpreting, but guiding interpretation as well—as it is crucial to teach our children how to interpret symbols for themselves. Accurately. Wisely.
And for those who are not parents, we all share the experience of once being children. Once upon a time, parents, grandparents, family members, teachers and other adults guided us.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day a few years ago, my daughter and I climbed the State House steps—there are 42, in case you ever wondered—and had a little picnic.
It’s a marvelous view, by the way. Head up there sometime with a snack and a thermos of milk.
Carlo Nicoli’s Confederate Soldier Monument was of course facing north, standing guard over the Confederate Flag flapping in the warm winter wind.
It seemed an opportune moment to discuss flags and their meaning with my daughter. After all, she stands and pledges allegiance to one in class.
I point out the Confederate Flag and share that for many of us it is a symbol of hate. It represents the efforts of those who attempted to separate from the Union to start their own country, mainly because they found slavery such a great way to make money.
I also share the opposing viewpoint: that the Confederate Flag is an important symbol of Southern heritage related to this time in history, the time of the Civil War.
When my daughter asks me what “heritage” means, I pause. I reach for the thermos of milk, “It means you’re proud about that history.”
She was honestly concerned. “Don’t our leaders know these things? Should we tell them?!”
I explain as best one can to a little girl that the Confederate Flag formerly flew atop the State House dome, that it was removed to its present hood ornament status as part of a political deal struck in 2000, the same deal that helped build the African-American History Monument which we had just visited before climbing the steps for our picnic.
In short, “yes they do know,” I explain. “Yet a law states that the Confederate Flag must fly.”
“Like the laws that make us stop at stop signs?” she asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
She grabs a cheese stick and pulls back the wrapper. “When I grow up, I’m going to bring a ladder down here and take that flag away.”
Bree Newsome, wherever you are, my daughter might have done it first—except I wouldn’t let her borrow my ladder.
“Papa,” my daughter asks, “What do you do when a law is bad?”
I take a bite of apple. “Everything you can to change it.”
Before us flies a 52-inch piece of fabric atop a 30-foot pole. The flag of “General Robert E. Lee’s Army”—as the South Carolina statute refers to it.
I invite everyone here—flag haters and supporters—to look at it.
The Confederate Flag follows the breeze. The breeze of heritage. The breeze of history. The breeze of hate. As long as it flies, this active symbol divides us.
Could it be that when it flies, many are reminded of Mississippi’s 1861 secession “Declaration”:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.”
Or perhaps the words of Columbia’s own Mayor Thomas J. Goodwin, who several weeks after surrendering Columbia to Sherman, wrote to Governor Magrath:
“The negroes of our city are now brought to tolerable subordination by rigid discipline but there is great complaint of them in the country … we want a cavalry force to scour through this district and shoot a few negroes and put them to work on some plantations.”
Let us fast forward 35 years to the time of Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman. He’s the stern ogre cast in bronze over yonder, the one with the plaque that declares him “friend of the common people.” This former Governor and United States Senator—this friend—once said in Congress:
“We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it … and we eliminated, as I said, all of the colored people whom we could….”
These active symbols. Inspire murder. Inspire arson. Inspire hate.
Last Saturday, I watched a Confederate Flag supporter stand at the base of the Confederate Soldier Monument and tell an African-American man “go back to where you came from.”
Is this heritage?
There comes a time when a community must decide which symbols are appropriate to represent the whole. The Confederate Flag does not represent the people of South Carolina. It does not represent me. It does not represent my child. It does not represent the General Assembly, which, need I remind its elected members, has been working hard to build a respectable, knowledge-based economy for our future.
It does not represent us.
Yet so long as it flies, it stands as an obstacle between South Carolina and Civilization.
In the coming days, the South Carolina General Assembly surely will act to forever remove this banner and retire it from active symbol to artifact. From “heritage” to history.
And, emboldened and empowered, our fight against hate and racism will continue. And healing will begin. And a search for new symbols worthy of our community will commence.
In closing, I invite you to consider a powerful symbol worth claiming upon these grounds.
As my daughter and I sat upon the State House steps, she built a sandwich of crackers and cheese and said to herself, “I can’t stop thinking about that chain.”
My daughter was referring to one of the bronze figures in the African-American History Monument. A slave stands with a shackle round his wrist. From the shackle hangs a single loose link of chain. To my knowledge, other than the Confederate Flag, it is the only moving part of any monument on these grounds.
I invite you to visit this monument at some point today. Touch that chain. Be moved by history. And let go of hate.
Finally, those of you among us who have allowed hate to shackle you, I invite you to let go your hate. Hate does not build. Hate only destroys. Instead, choose community. Choose philadelphia. Choose brotherly and sisterly love. Choose Civilization.
Let us make this moment a proud moment in our history, so that someday our children can tell their children, “I remember when South Carolina chose a better way.”
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