Last week, Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and slaughtered nine of the innocent people he found there. Roof’s act of slaughter has rightly been greeted with universal revulsion. But the media and politicians from both parties seized the opportunity to inaugurate a self-righteous crusade against a flag he displayed in one photograph taken before his rampage. South Carolina’s governor has asked that the Confederate battle flag, which used to fly from the capitol dome in Columbia, and which was later moved to a Civil War monument on the statehouse grounds, be taken down. The governors of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina have said that they don’t want the flag to appear on state license plates. (A decision of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals had required those states to issue plates bearing the battle flag to Confederate veteran groups, but the Supreme Court last week agreed with Texas that it should not have to issue such plates). Wal-Mart and Amazon have announced that they will no longer sell the Confederate battle flag, and one flag manufacturer has announced that it will no longer make it. Even self-professed conservatives have joined in the fray, with Rod Dreher, for example, penning two columns stating that the flag has to go. The object of all this clamor is clear: the Confederate battle flag must disappear from the American landscape.
It is hard to see why we should let one murderer set our course. Roof’s murderous hatred is not the reason the Confederate battle flag has remained a part of the American landscape for so long. And if we accept the conclusion of the clamorers that Confederate symbols are irredeemably tainted, it is hard so see why the expungement should stop with the flag. Shouldn’t we also then tear down all the monuments to the Confederate dead? Indeed, vandals in Charleston defaced Confederate monuments shortly after the shooting. And if symbols associated with views that are now rejected must go, it is hard to see why the expungement should stop with Confederate symbols. That is why there have been campaigns to stop honoring Christopher Columbus, to take Andrew Jackson off the $20.00 bill, to rename buildings honoring those who owned slaves, including George Washington. For decades, we have seen a concerted effort to remove symbols that call to mind a past that is deemed too white and too Christian. The removal of the battle flag will only accelerate this process.
I am not a Southerner. The Confederate battle flag is not my flag. But I hope that Southerners resist the current call to cast aside one of the symbols of their history, a symbol for which their forebears fought and died in a way that aroused the admiration even of those they fought.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.