Plessy v. Ferguson (separate but equal) was made the law of the land by U.S. Supreme Court decree in 1896. It took the high court 58 years to reverse that decision. When Medgar Evers, field secretary for the NAACP, was shot in the back in June 1963 in Mississippi, it took 31 years to bring his killer, Bryon de la Beckwith, to justice. He had been acquitted twice in ‘63 and ‘64 by all-white juries. Three months later, when a bomb tore through the bodies of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, it look Congress just shy of a year to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
So I was amazed at the speed of the South Carolina General Assembly to bring down the Confederate flag just 22 days after the gruesome murders of nine lovely souls in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The flag had sat either atop the capitol dome or on the grounds since 1962 -- and now it’s gone.
I am not going to debate the heritage versus hate symbolism of the Confederate flag here. I’m sure my opinion won’t mean a whit to anyone. I am a student of history and I know that to some, the events of the past (no matter how fact-based) or words from their own ancestors they say they cherish, will not release them from their “Gone With The Wind” fantasies, so why bother?
But why did the South Carolina Senate pass the measure to remove the flag by a margin of 37-3? Republicans control that body 28-18 and there are only 11 black senators. On the House side, why did it pass 94-20? Again, Republicans have an overwhelming 78-46 majority and there are only 28 blacks. Was it the memory of their colleague, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine who sat with Dylann Roof in Bible study that fateful night before Roof decided to manifest his hatred and kill him and Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., and DePayne Doctor? I’m sure that weighed heavily on their deliberations -- but I think there was something else acting in that room and in their hearts.
The words originally came from the mouth of a woman who should have -- by all rights -- been consumed by grief and anger as she stared at this waif who had taken her mother’s life. Rather, Nadine Collier, Ethel Lance’s daughter, said, “You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you and I forgive you.”
It was those three words, “I forgive you” that pierced the hearts of not only the lawmakers in South Carolina, but the heart of a nation. These families, full of grief, understood Philippians 4:7 “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I wish I could get some of that.
That’s what was at work here. God took this horrendous situation and created a salve of grace that could not be slapped away in good conscience.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who took the bold stroke of asking for the General Assembly to remove a flag she had previously said would remain under her administration, said the state of South Carolina needed to focus on the future, not the past.
Finally, let me be crystal clear. I am not one who wants to wipe Southern history off the face of the earth. The reasons for the Civil War are specified in articles of secession documents for all to see, written by the Southerners who decided to leave the Union. The states’ rights arguments on that point are simple semantic gymnastics.
Do I want to move all of the Confederate statues out of sight? No. I think of them in the same way I think of the words “Colored Waiting Room” carved in stone at the Terminal Station. They are conversation starters if they are dealt with in truth -- not fantasy.
We should own all of our heritage, good and bad. We’re all family and have been for generations, whether we like it or not. We have let fear and misplaced notions of superiority and inferiority separate us for too long. It’s a burden South Carolina lawmakers lifted from their shoulders last week. I would bet, even for those few lawmakers who voted against the measure to remove the flag, that they feel better today about the future of their state.
Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet@crichard1020.