Those Who Revise Their History Are Doomed to Repeat it
BY BECCI ROBBINS
To live in South Carolina is to be caught in a time warp. Some of us are still fighting the Civil War. Some of us are still marching for civil rights. And all of us, like it or not, are trapped in this odd little Fun House with no clear exit.
At the turn of the millennium, South Carolina seems ill at ease, more comfortable looking back than ahead. Take the second week in January, for instance. On Saturday, a pro-flag rally in Columbia turned out some 6,000 people, many in Confederate uniforms and hoop skirts, yelling war whoops and whistling "Dixie." Speakers promised a fight to the bitter end.
Next Monday, some 46,000 people marched from Zion Baptist Church to the State House for a rally to take down the flag. It was a scene straight out of the '60s, a sea of black faces singing the sound track of the civil rights movement. Speakers promised a fight to the bitter end.
Talk about deja vu all over again.
This much is clear: by now we're all suffering severe battle flag fatigue. Unfortunately, only our legislators can put us out of our misery, since they alone have the power to decide the flag's fate. Even more unfortunate, for too many years they have been too mired in pettiness and partisanship to reach resolution.
But time is running out. Economic sanctions against the state have forced the legislature to attend to an issue they would prefer to ignore. Even lawmakers with a white-knuckled grip on their heritage realize they have no choice but to move the flag. The question now is where to put it.
This is an interesting twist in otherwise tedious debate. Somewhere along the line, someone floated the idea of compromise. Sounds polite. Sounds practical. Sounds like a load of hooey, if you ask me.
Compromise? Let's review the facts:
Forty years ago a bunch of white guys decided to raise a Confederate flag over the State House dome. They said it was to commemorate the centennial of the war.
It was also clearly a single-finger salute to the raised fist of Black America. Pure and simple, it was a show of white power.
That the flag continued to fly after the centennial celebration was an oversight; no one had made any provision for taking it down. Over the years, it became part of the landscape until, eventually, it seemed to always have been there.
Now, another bunch of white guys wants to keep the flag flying on the State House dome. Realizing that is no longer possible, they are talking about a compromise.
Their idea is to take the flag down and put it in a "place of honor" on the State House grounds, never mind that the place already has six monuments to the Confederacy.
Whether they admit it or not, the Confederate flag flying above the State House remains a symbol of white power.
So when these legislators talk about compromise, let's remember that they wouldn't be talking at all if it weren't for the fact that someone started talking their language: money. It took sanctions to get them to the table. Why does that deserve applause, or concession?
It makes me think of Malcolm X, who once said something like "If you stab me in the back and only pull the knife out half way, why should I be grateful?"
Indeed, why should a handful of white guys with their white-knuckled grip on their (revisionist) heritage define what compromise looks like?
If they want to talk about compromise, let's get real.
Real compromise would mean not expanding the sanctions to include sporting events and entertainment personalities in exchange for the flag being retired to a museum.
Real compromise would let the flag defenders in the legislature put the flag anywhere they wanted in exchange for their equitably funding education in minority districts, fostering economic development in depressed counties and passing meaningful legislation to improve the lives of African Americans in South Carolina.
Real compromise would be erecting a statue of Denmark Vesey, who led the state's most famous slave rebellion, next to the new statue of Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Real compromise would let voters retire the flag to an orifice of their preference on the person of Sen. Arthur Ravenel. (If you somehow missed it, the Charleston senator, at a pro-flag rally, called the NAACP the National Association of Retarded Persons and, when pressed for an apology, offered one only to the mentally impaired.)
Absurd as the flag debate often is, ultimately it is a healthy, necessary exercise, revealing a lot about who we really are and what we really believe. The slick veneer so many of our leaders wear has cracked. Peeled back, you can see what lies beneath the polite exterior. The truth should give us pause.And conviction.