Connie Schultz: The demise of a symbol
On the evening of June 17, nine black Americans were killed in their Charleston, South Carolina, church by a white supremacist — but only after he’d spent an hour with them praying and studying the Bible.
Three days after the slaying of these nine innocent black Americans, a number of photos of the 21-year-old who confessed to the shootings were discovered on a white supremacist website and immediately went viral.
The one photo you most likely have seen shows him seated in a lawn chair. He is dressed in a striped shirt and denim shorts, his pale, scrawny legs spread wide to show off the gun he’s dangling in front of his crotch. His left hand holds the Confederate flag.
If you didn’t know he’s been charged for the murder of nine innocent black Americans, you’d think he wore the face of the classic pretender — the guy who thinks he looks mean while everyone around him knows he just looks ridiculous.
That’s one of the many horrifying details of this hate-fueled massacre. He looked too foolish to be dangerous.
Five days after the killing of nine innocent black Americans — five years into her tenure — South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, held a news conference and, surrounded by fellow elected officials, called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the state Capitol grounds.
That same day, Wal-Mart announced it would no longer sell products with the Confederate flag.
Six days after the killing of nine innocent black Americans, Sears, eBay and Amazon.com also announced they would no longer sell products with the Confederate flag. This news surprised a lot of people who had no idea those companies had been peddling the Confederate flag all along.
Shortly after Amazon’s announcement, I signed in to my Amazon Prime account and found page after page of Confederate gear for sale. So many things emblazoned with the Confederate flag, from saddle spurs to jackknives and, in one unfortunate moment of seeing something I wish I could un-see, a pair of men’s bikini briefs.
Seven days after the killing of nine innocent black Americans, The Citadel posted on its website a statement from its president, Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa.
The letter began:
“This has been a difficult week for our community and state. The Citadel has directly felt the impact of the tragedy at Emanuel AME Church as one of the victims was a Citadel Graduate College alumnus and six of our employees lost family members. The Emanuel AME Church is our neighbor and we consider it a part of our extended Citadel family. We will continue to support the church and its members in their time of need.
“Today, The Citadel Board of Visitors voted 9-3 in favor of moving the Confederate Naval Jack from Summerall Chapel to an appropriate location on campus.”
NPR journalist Michele Norris, the curator of The Race Card Project, responded to The Citadel’s announcement via Twitter, expressing what’s on a lot of Americans’ minds:
“This announcement raises a Q that begs an answer: Just where is an ‘appropriate place’ for the confederate flag?”
Excellent question. We can look forward to weeks, if not months, of apologists trying to explain why we should ever see again that racist emblem flying anywhere near government property. Lots of sentences beginning with homina homina homina and ending with something about states’ rights.
Finish the sentence: states’ rights to own slaves.
With sympathy for the Citadel community, I do want to stress that the killing of nine innocent black Americans is personal to all of us. Despite what Ohio’s governor, presidential maybe-candidate John Kasich, says, this is not South Carolina’s problem to fix. This is America’s tragedy. This is our racist symbol. Time to bury it in the grave of history, where it has long belonged.
I paused before writing this column. It’s been a week now, and when you’re a columnist, you always worry about having something new to say about what’s already on everybody’s mind. You want to avoid coming off as beating the same drum.
But racists never worry about that. I’ve learned that over my 13 years as a columnist. One of my first columns, written in the fall of 2002 from Cleveland, called for retiring the Confederate flag. It generated my first avalanche of hate mail from around the country, and this was long before I was syndicated. Hate is a mighty bond for the morally empty, and some of them have never stopped writing to me. They don’t worry about being repetitive. Their fear is that they will be irrelevant.
For the first time, their fear is justified.
Nine innocent black Americans were killed in a church in Charleston.
What if the alleged murderer had not been so public about his affection for the Confederate flag?
Quite simply — and sadly — we know we would not feel so emboldened to believe we may be witnessing its impending demise.
And that’s yet another tragedy I can’t get off my mind.