By Lee A. Daniels
The Confederate battle flag flies over the grounds of the South Carolina state Capitol no more. The end-result of an emotional debate in the state’s legislature was Gov. Nikki Haley’s July 9th signing bipartisan legislation ordering the flag’s removal to the nearby state-supported Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, and that long-overdue act being carried out last Friday.
Numerous analysts have rightly noted the stunning speed with which the public-sector and private-sector rationale for displaying the marker of White supremacy and a treasonous rebellion eroded. There’s no question that indicates a sizeable number of white Americans in the South – including many White elected officials – and elsewhere had already determined for themselves the flag doesn’t deserve public sanction. They were awaiting the moment when something would happen to clearly indicate the time to force the issue had come.
The impassioned speeches of those South Carolina state legislators who called for the Confederate flag’s removal bring to mind the powerful warning the novelist William Faulkner spoke in 1955 as the White South’s leadership was making perfectly clear its murderous intent to resist the fledgling Civil Rights Movement.
“We accept insult and contumely and the risk of violence because we will not sit quietly by…” Faulkner, a native Mississippian, began, referencing the threats made against those Southern Whites who urged accepting Blacks’ demands for equal rights.
He continued, “We speak now against the day when our Southern people who will resist to the last these inevitable changes in social relations will, when they have been forced to accept what they at one time might have accepted with dignity and good will, say, ‘Why didn’t someone tell me this before? Tell us this in time?’”
Gov. Haley and all those who spoke for the flag’s removal were following Faulkner’s warning. They were speaking now against the day.
But we should remember all the roots of last week’s action in South Carolina.
Let us remember that it stands on a mountain of scholarly studies and popular histories that have rescued the truth about the Confederacy and its symbols and its documents from the poison pens and phony justifications of White-racist historians and propagandists.
Let us remember that the demands to take down that flag began 54 years ago when South Carolina’s segregationist leaders raised it to underscore their “massive resistance” to treating Black South Carolinians as equally as White South Carolinians.
And, finally, let us also remember that it was directly “paid for” by nine Black Americans and their families and their church, whose history of Christian forbearance and compassion embodies the simultaneously humane and defiant spirit of one of the Civil Rights Movement’s fervent anthems: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round.”
Faulkner spoke at a moment of high drama in the history of America, when the nation was both forced to and chose to try to live up to its Constitutional promise of tolerance and equality in spirit and in law.
America stands at another such moment today. The difference is that today the struggle for America’s future is being waged on multiple fronts against those who think they can hold back the forward sweep of History, or who exercise a cowardly pragmatism and remain silent when they should speak up.
Indeed, as if to deliberately underscore that reality, at nearly the very moment Democratic and Republican legislators in South Carolina were joining forces in their historic vote, a group of House Republicans in Congress were sneaking an amendment into a funding measure for the federal Department of the Interior to block the agency from banning Confederate memorabilia in national cemeteries. When Democrats furiously objected, House Speaker John Boehner, the Ohio Republican, abruptly halted consideration of the entire measure.
Then he and the rest of the GOP bloc began running for cover. Although the pro-Confederate amendment was supposedly the work of “some southern members of the Republican Caucus,” neither Boehner nor others in the House leadership identified them.
But, in one sense, it’s not necessary to identify that particular set of cowards. What is important is for each American to answer the declarative question Democratic Rep. Al Green, of Texas, in words that echoed Faulkner’s, sternly told his House colleagues Americans in the future would ask: “Where did you stand when you had a chance to stand for righteousness? I stand against this symbol. I stand for the American flag. I stand for justice.”
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at http://www.amazon.com.