Kentucky: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined Kentucky's Republican nominee for governor, Matt Bevin, in calling for the removal of a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from their state Capitol's rotunda.
Source: Associated Press
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The Confederate flag has been thrown into the spotlight as recent events demand an answer to the question: historical item or offensive symbol?
South Carolina lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to consider removing the Confederate battle flag from their Statehouse grounds as politicians took aim at Civil War-era symbols in other states, saying change is imperative after police said nine black churchgoers in Charleston were slain in a hate crime.
Prodded by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s call the day before to move the flag to a museum, lawmakers approved a measure enabling a flag debate by a vote of 103-10 in the House and a voice vote in the Senate.
Very few lawmakers rose to say the flag should stay, although some said they were saving speeches for what promises to be an emotional debate later this summer.
Haley’s unexpected reversal — quickly seconded by leading Republicans including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — gave others the political opening to announce their moves. Many cited the church slayings as they abandoned the long-held position that even debating the status of the flag would be too racially divisive today.
Rodney Coates, interim director of Black World Studies at Miami University, said the Confederate flag is to African-Americans “much like the Nazi flag to Jews.”
“It symbolizes a period of racial angst in American history,” he said.
Coates added that there is an extra issue in the flag being displayed by a public entity, like the South Carolina Statehouse, rather than by a private individual.
“It’s almost an essential endorsement,” Coates said. “That’s the state endorsing this racial imagery.”
Nishani Frazier, associate professor of history and affiliate of the Black World Studies Program at Miami University, said the place for the Confederate flag is in a museum, not on a government building.
For some, the historical meaning of the flag outweighs the current social connotations and some say it is simply a piece of heritage.
However, Frazier said that even the historical meaning is “intimately tied to the enslavement of African people in America.”
Frazier said the Confederate flag represents the South’s attempt to declare independence, but also represents the role slavery and the slave economy played in the Civil War.
“You can’t just throw out slavery” when talking about the heritage of the South, she said.
Archie Johnson, Hamilton city council member, said the flag is a very small problem in light of bigger problems of racism in the country.
“The flag is only symbolic of the thought process, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to deal with the thought process,” he said.
Because the real problem is underlying racism, Johnson said, the controversy isn’t confined to South Carolina.
“Whether you’re in South Carolina or Hamilton, Ohio, it’s the same issues,” he said. “The issue of racism is a conversation that nobody really wants to have.”
He said the local area isn’t immune from the problems.
“I think we’re still very segregated in Butler County,” he said “It’s because we’re not having these conversations.”
In 2006, some attendees of the Butler County Fair were offended when the symbol was displayed repeatedly at the event. A Hamilton Journal-News editorial stated the symbol was seen “in the form of hats, T-shirts, belt buckles, and even a Confederate flag used in a horse saddle design. Booths at the fairgrounds had their share of Confederate merchandise, too, including games where people can win large Confederate flags to small mirrors bearing the Confederate flag.”
The editorial called for fair organizers to take steps to ensure all future fairs were free of “symbols that represent hatred, ignorance, intolerance and racism.”
The Journal-News attempted to contact members of the 2006 fair board, but calls and emails were not returned.
Coates said he hoped the controversy would cause the conversation to move from dealing with the symbols of racism, to dealing with the underlying causes of racism.
“We raise the stakes in this conversation by pointing to underlying issues that preserve the racial mindset,” he said.
In light of the call to remove the flag from the Capitol, big businesses also took action: Wal-Mart, e-Bay and Sears Holding Corp. announced they would no longer sell merchandise featuring the Confederate flag, which e-Bay called a “contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism.”
Art Schaller, president of the National Flag Co. in Cincinnati, said his company does sell Confederate flags, along with other historical flags. He said the company has sold Confederate flags since it was incorporated and will mostly likely continue to do so.
However, Schaller said the few requests they company receives for the Confederate flag are usually from historical reenactment groups and movie sets.
He added that the company would not sell a flag to a hate group or something similar.
“(The flags) end up in the hands of people with good intentions rather than people who want to incite riots or incite hate crimes,” he said.
However, as the controversy unfolds, Schaller said, “We may change our policy depending on what transpires.”
Outside Tuesday in the sweltering South Carolina heat, where hundreds chanted “bring it down, bring it down,” civil rights activist Kevin Gray said it’s time to stop using the word “victims” to describe the people slain inside Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian church. They are martyrs, he said, and if Confederate symbols come down around the South, their deaths will not have been in vain.
There were a handful of dissenting voices in the crowd that gathered next to the Confederate monument where the flag flies atop a 30-foot pole in front of the Statehouse, in full view of the U.S. and state flags flying at half-staff.
“This flag is heritage. If you take it down you won’t get rid of racism. The flag didn’t pull the trigger. The flag didn’t kill anybody. That was an individual that did that,” said Mark Garman, 56.
The Confederate battle flag was placed atop the Statehouse dome in 1961 for the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and lawmakers decided in 1962 to keep it there in response to the civil rights movement. After mass protests, a smaller, square version was moved to the flagpole out front in 2000.
Dylann Storm Roof, who faces murder and gun charges in the church attack, had posed in photos displaying Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags, and told a friend that he was planning to do something “for the white race.”
This article contains reporting by The Associated Press.