Five years ago this week, Dylann Roof, then 21, killed nine black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. They’d welcomed the young and troubled white man to join in Bible study when he appeared.
The killings ignited outcries: for beloved community members lost, and against the savagery of the attack, and toward the lapse in the FBI background-check system that allowed Roof to buy a weapon even though his record should have barred the purchase. And against the Confederate battle flag that Roof posed with, that adorned the “Confederate States of America” decorations on his Hyundai and that, at that time, flew on the grounds of the South Carolina State House.
Today, the nation is again in turmoil over Confederate flags and military bases named after Confederate generals and monuments to the Confederate cause, turmoil spurred by police violence toward unarmed black men that belies systemic racism. Five years later, it’s time to look at the lies and misunderstandings surrounding the symbols that allow supporters to crow “Heritage, not hate.”
Had my native South Carolina wanted to hoist the Confederate battle flag over the State House to celebrate soldiers who fought nobly in defense of a heinous cause, the state could have done so before 1962. That was the year South Carolina first flew it, ostensibly to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. In truth, the banner was raised to signify defiance against federal imposition of equal rights for black people, as Sen. Strom Thurmond fought desegregation and civil rights in Washington and the state’s flagship universities battled to stay white.
In 2015, five days after Roof’s rampage, then-Gov. Nikki Haley called for the Confederate flag’s removal from the State House grounds. In 2000, it had been shifted from the official flagpole and to the grounds’ Confederate Monument via the South Carolina Heritage Act, a law that does a lot to illustrate the relentlessness of racism.
The headlines of the South Carolina Heritage Act sound progressive: it moved the Confederate flag from the pole over the Capitol to a side area, and it made the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday.
But it also made Confederate Memorial Day an official state holiday for the first time.
And it banned removal of any Confederate flag from the complex and “the removal, changing or renaming of any local or state monument, marker, memorial, school or street erected or named in honor of the Confederacy” without a two-thirds majority of the state House and Senate.
In 2015, a month after Roof’s attack, that two-thirds majority in each chamber was finally shamed into banishing the flag from the grounds, but not from supporters’ hearts.
The vast majority of Confederate monuments in the United States were erected during two periods: the early 1900s when Jim Crow laws were being enacted against the NAACP’s first hard push for equal rights, and the 1950s and 1960s, when the nation again convulsed over the equal rights of black people to vote, be educated, garner housing and employment and live as free and equal Americans.
What the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments stand for is exactly what Roof thought they stood for when he was inspired to murder, exactly what the white supremacists who wanted them erected thought they stood for when they fought against equal rights.
The chant is “Heritage, not hate.” The truth is that the heritage of these symbols is hate, and the willingness to fight for their display in the face of black Americans’ pain and anguish in encountering them proves that every day.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.