When I posted on Facebook last Thursday, that I was thinking about going to Columbia, South Carolina, Friday, to watch them finally furl the Confederate flag, I got a little pushback from some of my conservative friends. They cynically insisted that the historic event I was going to witness was no big deal and its impact way over-hyped.
They said, on my post and others, that the media frenzy over moving “a square piece of cloth” was at worst a distraction for the world’s problems and at best a panacea that would lull people into thinking that we’ve finally turned a cultural corner in the Old South.
“It’s a manufactured event, ” one critic wrote. “I don’t expect the air to smell like lilacs, don’t expect 300 million people to hold hands and sing kume by ya.”
“Just smoke and diversion” from the “real issues,” wrote another.
I thought they were misreading people’s expectations, that there can be no question there is still much work left to do. Was it mostly symbolic? Sure, but it was an important step. As it turns out, for the people of South Carolina, it was hugely important, much closer to an awakening than I thought, and so much more of the optimism the event’s critics sardonically predicted.
After witnessing that anachronistic flag, despised by many and revered by few, being lowered, folded up and driven away from the capitol grounds, Friday, I have to admit that the people we spoke to indeed saw only sunny days ahead for the Palmetto State, and their joy was rarely expressed in measured declarations.
Bernard Jackson, a local artist, set up an easel across from the flag post depicting a Buffalo Soldier looming large, with the flag behind him, “because it’s behind us now,” he explained.
“This isn’t a black victory, or a white victory,” he went on, excitedly, “This is an American victory. This is a world victory. Everybody across the world is rejoicing right now. It’s a ripple effect. You changed the tides of the world.”
His optimism was jarring, because I expected there to be much more tension. There wasn’t.
True, among some, like Myron Murrow, who said his family had been in South Carolina since at least the Eighteenth Century, there was some indignancy and resignation. After all, he showed up, grandchildren in tow, wearing the Confederate emblem on the back of his t-shirt, surrounded by the words “Stopping Terrorism Since 1861.” This, of course, follows the euphemistic Southern description of the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.”
“When they try to erase it from our history,” he told me, “that’s when I proudly wear my flag.”
But as long as that flag flew on public, state-owned property, at “the people’s house,” as someone put it, then it seemed like nothing more than an ironic attempt to hide South Carolina’s history of racism in its own shadow.
Watch the video of the Confederate Flag coming down.
“We can’t say that slavery didn’t happen, that segregation didn’t happen, that people weren’t lynched and murdered and harassed and oppressed. It happened.” Brittani Williams, a young woman who had driven up from Charleston, explained.
Murrow decried the consequences of the state legislature’s actions, lamenting, “It makes a lot of people feel like, if they have ancestors who fought, it makes it feel like they lost the war all over again.”
Yet among almost everyone else we spoke to, the conversation was enthusiastic, characterizing the event as a time for love, forgiveness and moving on.
“This is going to bring everybody closer and bring America hope, tighter knit,” Reginald Epps, a facilitator for a S.T.E.M. program in Greenville, S.C., said. “That’s why I think it’s important, what’s happened here.”
Williams couldn’t hold back the tears. “I cried the whole way here. I’ll probably cry the whole way home,” she said, using her hand as a fan to help regain her composure. “Being from Charleston, this is a victory for us, because we lost nine beautiful people,” she continued, adding, “It’s a step forward. It’s a victory for our nation, because now we can start to heal.”
So maybe it wasn’t an entire nation coming together in a group hug, but it wasn’t a small thing, a diversion, either. It was a long time coming. I think I approached it as an outsider, albeit not an unbiased one, and I just did not anticipate how profound it was to have a burden lifted from the shoulders of those who had been squirming uncomfortably beneath it for 150 years.
Jackson, the artist, painted a brightly colored picture of the state he loves and the place he calls home. “South Carolina is about to turn the corner, enormously,” he said, “and I can’t wait.”