The Confederate battle flag flying at The South Carolina state capitol, even after the mass murders of African American worshippers by a racist who proudly displayed the same flag, has created a political mess for Republicans.
In the past, Republicans felt they could get away with supporting the flying of the confederate battle flag, or equivocating on the issue. And get away with it they did, with the sole exception of GOP 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who took a stand against flying the flag.
But that has now changed as a result of revelations about the shooter, and his embrace of the flag, which has all but cemented its identity as a symbol of racist violence. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has joined with the speaker of the SC state assembly in calling for the removal of the flag from the capitol, and now other Republicans, including GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson are finally beginning to follow suit.
Of course the battle flag was always a symbol of the pro-slavery armies of the confederacy. But many white southerners saw it as more a symbol of their heritage, in non-racist terms. Southern racists manipulated the sentiment to keep it in the public’s face. Worse, few if any of the flag’s defenders protested against the adoption of the flag as a preeminent symbol by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups. Their utter failure to do so further discredited the argument that it was a non-racist “cultural” symbol.
No doubt many of the less-educated southern ground troops who died under the flag in Civil War battles saw themselves as protecting their homeland against northern invaders, more than defending slavery. But no credible historians deny that the slaveholding landowners, slave-traders and commanding officers of the Confederacy understood that their core mission was to protect the institution of slavery.
In the 1960s, segregationists made the Confederate battle flag a symbol of their cause, joined by the Ku Klux Klan, the slightly less blatant white citizens councils and other hate groups. You had to be in denial after the 1960s to say that the Confederate battle flag was not a symbol of racial injustice.
Civil Rights advocates had some success in getting the battle flag emblem removed from the Georgia state flag, but it still occupies a corner of the Mississippi state banner. Republicans were able to politically navigate the troubled waters of the flag controversy in the south with the calculation that the votes they got from pro-flag southern whites offset those they lost from southern African Americans, whose collective votes they were able to shrink with a range of suppression tactics.
Republican Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas joined with liberal members of the court to uphold a Texas ruling keeping the flag logo off state license plates, but Georgia still allows the symbol on license plates. Since it has been revealed that Dylann Roof was influenced by the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens, Republicans have begun backing away from the group. As Michael Wines and Lizette Alvarez report at the New York Times:
Since it rose in the 1980s from the ashes of the old and unabashedly racist White Citizens’ Councils, the Council of Conservative Citizens has drifted in and out of notoriety. But it is clearly back in: Last weekend, three Republican presidential candidates — Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky — announced that they were returning or giving away donations from the council’s president, Earl Holt III.
Senator Paul continues to equivocate when confronted about his views of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his father’s former newsletter, which parroted racist stereotypes. Republicans still glorify President Reagan who pandered shamelessly to racists.
But we have now reached the point where a critical mass of Americans is repulsed by the flag. That’s why the nation’s largest retailer, Walmart has decided to stop selling merch with the battle flag’s starred cross bar emblem.
It would be good for America if the Confederate battle flag becomes a museum piece, instead of a taxpayer-supported symbol intended to offend Americans of color, who have long been victimized by hate groups. The flag will continue to fly here and there and be seen on bumper stickers and other private property. But Republican leaders are now backing away from it as a symbol that should be tolerated on public property — at least for a while.
I expect that Republicans will continue to play the race card, perhaps in less blatant ways. They still have a southern strategy which includes pandering to racial prejudice. It’s just going to be a little less overt. Sad that it took such a horrific tragedy to move the GOP in a less offensive direction.