For those who romanticize the Old South, the red, white and blue crossed bars of the Confederate battle flag symbolize a lost way of life, framed in a nostalgia for a time that was, supposedly, one of honor and pride and glory. For most Americans, however, that flag was and is the symbol of a violent uprising to defend the indefensible institution of slavery. It is the banner of white supremacy.
Seldom has the flag seemed more objectionable than in the aftermath of the slaughter of nine African Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., last week and the arrest of a young man espousing white supremacist views. After the killings, South Carolina officials lowered the state and U.S. flags over the Capitol building to half-staff. But under state law, the Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds still flies at the top of its 30-foot pole. The implication, though unintentional, is clear: The Old South does not acknowledge the nine dead men and women as worthy of public mourning.
It was a horrific crime. The victims had welcomed Dylann Roof into an evening prayer meeting and then, according to authorities, he gunned them down, leaving one survivor with instructions to relay what had happened, including the vile racist comments he is alleged to have made. Some have sought to blame the tragedy on mental illness, but if the details are affirmed, it's equally fair — and perhaps more fair — to identify the driving sickness as racism.
On Monday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley joined the movement to persuade the state Legislature to remove the flag from the grounds of the Capitol. That is a welcome step by a powerful political figure in the state, and it is to be hoped that her support will be enough to secure the supermajority votes needed in both houses to take down the flag forever.
But all the states of the old Confederacy should ensure that the flag is removed from government buildings and grounds, consigning it, as President Obama suggested, to museums. The state flag of Mississippi, in which the rebel banner is embedded, should be redesigned. Other states whose flags include parts of the Confederate flag, or echoes of its design, should think hard about what they symbolize, about racial inclusiveness and about how to embrace history honestly.
The Civil War ended 150 years ago. But as we see on a daily basis, it still reverberates through a society that has often proved incapable of bridging the racial divide. One easy way to start building that bridge would be to mothball this most potent symbol of slavery, and of hatred, while reaffirming a commitment to confront our ongoing national disgrace.