Updated March 2017
When twenty-one-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof opened fire at the downtown Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, in Charleston, SC, he was, as he confessed after his arrest, trying to incite a race war. He had stashed a handgun in his fanny pack before getting to the church’s Wednesday night Bible Study class, and when everyone had his head bowed in prayer, Roof pulled his gun and shot and killed six women and three men, including the pastor. The three oldest victims were 70, 74, and 87, the youngest 26, 41, and 45. As he shot the defenseless Bible Study Christians, Roof said, according to news reports, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country—you have to go!”
Pictures of Roof draped in the Confederate flag and spouting venom from his so-called Manifesto began appearing online and in newspapers. He’d been motivated by George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida in February 2012. Zimmerman was on patrol for a local Neighborhood Watch group when he spotted Martin, an unarmed black seventeen-year-old walking on a street near the house of his father, who lived in the neighborhood. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder charges a year later, citing Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” defense. Roof took heart: it was open season on blacks.
Roof, however, was wrong. He was convicted of thirty-three federal hate crimes in December 2016, and condemned to death in January 2017. His killings were so heinous that Confederate flags, symbols of the South rising once again, emblems of slavery and the brutal subjugation of blacks, have begun to be removed all over the South, including the statehouse in Columbia, S.C.
Roof’s massacre and the ensuing conversations about the Confederate flag have turned the spotlight onto traditional rationalizations of Southerners to absolve themselves of their region's slave-owning sins—like for example, the maliciously twisted logic that led them to maintain that slavery was good for everyone, including the slaves themselves, who were “protected” from birth to grave. Their most pernicious rationalization was the redirection of the argument from human rights to political semantics as they tried to forgive their cruelties by claiming the authority of states’ rights. They had the right to buy and sell black people, lash and torture them, kill them, break up their families—practice, in short, inhumanity on the grandest and most despicable scale—all in the name of a slippery right guaranteed them by the Constitution.
To gain the right perspective on slavery and slave owners, read David Reynolds' John Brown: Abolitionist (Knopf, 2005). It isn’t a perfect book, Reynolds being a typical, over-moralizing baby boomer, but his defense of Brown is nevertheless moving and convincing. It took the violence of the Civil War, and here Reynolds is on strong moral ground, to wash the country clean of slavery, which was always the real issue, not a bloodless, gentlemanly, academic reflection over the fine points of political philosophy.
There should be no place in modern America for romanticized notions of a bygone Southern way of life symbolized by the Confederate flag. That flag is nothing more than a symbol of hatred and barbarity. Every single one should be taken down from public buildings and confined to museums where they can be viewed as the national disgrace they are.
Related story: On Friday, May 19, 2017, under the watch of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the city removed the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from its position in the center of Lee Circle. It was the last of four statues honoring Confederate leaders to be removed, but Lee's position at the head of the gallery of Southern "heroes" makes his removal most significant--and courageous.
Mayor Landrieu, according to the Tampa Bay Times (May 24, 2017), "marked the occasion with a blunt speech":
The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to
slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should
never again put on a pedestal to be revered. As a community, we must
recognize the significance of removing New Orleans' Confederate
monuments. It is our acknowledgement that now is the time to take
stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history.
Also: Eric Foner, "The Making and Breaking of Robert E. Lee" (NYTBR, Sept. 17, 2017): "Lee has always occupied a unique place in the national imagination. The ups and downs of his reputation reflect changes in key elements of Americans' historical consciousness. . . . Lee's 'legend' needs to be retired. And whatever the fate of his statues and memorials, so long as the legacy of slavery continues to bedevil American society, it seems unlikely that historians will return Lee, metaphorically speaking , to his pedestal."