As I stood before the South Carolina State House on July 10, I knew I was witnessing a historic moment. Members of the New Black Panther Party uneasily stood shoulder-to-shoulder with members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; Jesse Jackson stood on the state house steps, not far from Republican governor Nikki Haley. We were all there for one reason—the Confederate flag was finally being taken down.
The fall of the Confederate flag in Columbia, South Carolina, has been over fifty years in the making. While the tragic events in Charleston in June landed the final blow, let there be no mistake: for generations South Carolinians have protested against the flag’s presence over the state house and its grounds. What does the fall of the flag in Columbia now mean for the state, for the South, and for the nation?
When the flag first went up on top of the South Carolina State House in 1961, activists in South Carolina, like those across the country, were fighting for their civil rights. For decades after the civil rights movement, the flag was a symbol of resistance—a way for white South Carolinians to object to the advancement for their African American brethren. Even if black Americans were able to gain political power, hold office, and attend the same schools as their children, the flag was a reminder that not all white citizens were willing to consider them equals. The flag was more than a relic of history—it was also a right-wing, reactionary vision of what the American South should look like.
In the weeks leading up to the removal of the flag, there was little reason to believe that it would actually happen. Debates in the South Carolina legislature, in both the Senate and the House, reflected the clash in how white and black southerners remembered—and had experienced—history. Many white legislators, especially those in the Republican Party, were concerned that the end of the Confederate flag on the state house grounds meant that white southerners were under siege. Willfully ignoring the clear link between the flag and resistance to civil rights in the sixties, the few flag supporters in the South Carolina government argued that it was simply a monument to their heritage.
The speed with which the Confederate flag finally came down must of course be attributed to the shooting of nine people at the historic black Emanuel church in Charleston. Although there had been decades of protest and agitation against the flag in South Carolina, it would never have been taken down if not for Dylann Roof’s terrorist attack. For progressives in South Carolina, although removing the flag has been a key priority, it is one that always seemed out of reach. As recently as 2014, Governor Nikki Haley argued that since businesses had no problem with the flag, and since South Carolina now had an Indian-American governor and an African-American senator (Tim Scott, also a Republican), the state didn’t have an image problem; removing the flag simply wasn’t necessary. It was the national outcry against the continued flying of the flag after the attack in Charleston that finally pushed Haley to act.
The events of June 17 underscored that the Confederate flag’s prominence in South Carolina could no longer be ignored. Symbolism matters, and Governor Haley as well as members of the South Carolina government know this. And as Black Lives Matter activists agitate against the continued prominence of other Confederate monuments across the South—going so far as to spray-paint several of them with anti-racist graffiti—we on the Left must also remember that symbols matter. They do not take the place of concrete reforms, such as improving health care or addressing economic inequality (something Southern activists will have to continue to fight for), but they matter. The extraordinary, energized, festival-like atmosphere in Columbia when the flag came down proved this.
As people dispersed from the state house grounds, I went to buy a drink at a store on Main Street. Standing in line, seeking respite from the hundred-degree weather, an older African-American man was whistling a tune that, earlier that day, had been sung at full voice as the flag came down:
Na na na na
Na na na na
This doesn’t mean South Carolina’s many other problems have ceased to exist. If every Confederate statue were to suddenly disappear tomorrow, the region would still experience chronic unemployment, poor health care, and terrible schools. But the absence of the flag, no longer a symbol of South Carolina’s government, means that there’s hope for a different South—one where there are equal rights for all.
Robert Greene is a Ph.D. student at the University of South Carolina, whose research interests include intellectual history and the post-1965 history of African Americans and the U.S. South. He is also a blogger and book review editor for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians.