While participating in a high school newspaper editors’ conference at the University of South Carolina during the summer of 1973, I discovered that the state flew the Confederate battle flag atop its Capitol dome. It was only later that I learned it had been placed there just 12 years earlier as a show of defiance against the civil rights movement still in its early stages.
During that stroll through downtown Columbia, in my youthful sense of Southern pride, I took no offense at the display. But many other citizens saw it differently, and chafed at that sight.
As a result of the protests that roiled the people of South Carolina and beyond over the flag issue in 2000, I agreed that the Capitol grounds should be a place for seeking agreement on public matters, and not for keeping old wounds from healing. The time had come for the old flag to find a more agreeable home.
It closed a 42-year circle for me to return to Columbia this past Friday, July 10, to watch the Confederate flag lowered for the last time from the “home” it was given in the shaky 2000 compromise. Unlike my day in 1973, the Capitol grounds this day were filled with thousands of black and white citizens, many cheering and even gleeful, as an honor guard of the S.C. Highway Patrol furled the banner and presented it to an archivist from the state museum.
By 10 a.m., anticipation had grown among the folks surrounding my vantage point beyond the statue of former U.S. Sen. Ben Tillman. “Pitchfork Ben” was a noted white supremacist of his times, just over a century ago, and on this day of addressing past history and its symbols, it was ironic to see young black children, and an older gentleman sporting a yarmulke, clinging to his pedestal to see the flag retired.’
Chants of “Take it down! “Take it down!” … “Be on time!” “Be on time!” peppered the air. The aura of the violent deaths of nine members of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Zion Church, at the hands of a deranged young man on June 17, was clearly present, along with members of their families. The many who were gathered here today, however, seemed determined to maintain a peaceful assembly.
Those chants of “Take it down!” would occasionally give way to the levity of “It is hot!” and “I need to get to work!” The weather may have supplied about the best anecdote for the day. Afternoon temperatures reached 100, and the atmosphere was steamy by mid-morning.
When mixed with personal disagreements, this is often a recipe for ugly and sometimes violent confrontations. Not on this day.
Following the brief ceremony, folks of different races and of different persuasions about the Confederate flag milled about the grounds and the street talking with each other. Discussions would occasionally “warm up,” but not violently. Handshakes, pats on the arm, and a few hugs seemed more in vogue.
A beefy white gentleman carrying a large Confederate flag and a well-dressed black gentleman engaged in a lengthy discussion. Long enough to attract representatives from CNN, CBS and ABC radio. Neither appeared to change the other’s views about the flag, but upon discovery that each had served in the military, they did agree about the American flag — and eventually exchanged a handshake.
Curiously, an elderly black man, probably a Civil War battlefield re-enactor, was present in the street dressed in his Confederate sergeant’s uniform and carrying a rebel flag. He was engaged in what I suspect was an interesting exchange with a group of younger African-Americans.
The views of Confederate flag supporters should not be completely dismissed. While it is clear that slavery was a driving issue for legislative leaders to withdraw their states from the American union in 1860-61, it is also clear that it would require deeper reasons for the average Southern soldier to remain in the field — very often in harm’s way, subjected to disease and deprived of home and family for several years.
Well beyond the slavery issue, Southerners under arms in the 1860s had developed stronger loyalties to home and community than to a distant national government. Many of them bought into the belief that they were, simply, fighting for reasons much closer to home.
Consequently, the Confederate memorials so iconic to many small Southern communities are there more to address the positive memories and sacrifices of those soldiers than to provide a statement of defiance.
Still, the reasons for the war and the stakes of its outcome, and what the battle flag represented, were different for other Southerners — those toiling without pay in the fields, and in later years, those deliberately harassed by folks who misused that flag as a symbol of oppression.
The placement of that flag prominently on the grounds of some states’ capitols and its incorporation into a few states’ flags some six decades ago represented something very different from the town memorials. The time had come to remove that symbolism, though sadly, only in the wake of Charleston’s tragedy.
It seemed revealing of the mood on South Carolina’s Capitol grounds when, as the flag was lowered, the previous chants gave way to those of “USA! USA!”
Douglas Smith is a resident of Rockingham and an occasional contributor to the Daily Journal.