South Carolina: Give Up a Little Pride to Grant Others a Little Peace

A former Furman University president says, “Take down the Confederate Flag.”

It was an almost macabre coincidence. As the nation awoke to the heartbreaking news of the massacre at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, the United States Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that Texas could refuse to issue a specialty license place, featuring the Confederate battle flag, for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

In the aftermath of the massacre, South Carolina has been embroiled in an international debate over the propriety of its continued flying of the Confederate Flag at the State Capitol. That question has festered for decades. Although the flag was removed from the dome of the Capitol building in 2000, it resurfaced in a prominent spot near a monument to Confederate soldiers at the entrance to the Capitol grounds, and has remained a vexatious and insulting symbol of racism to many South Carolinians.

I came to understand the issue in an improbably oblique way earlier this decade when I was President of Furman University, in Greenville, South Carolina. Furman played Division I intercollegiate sports. At a meeting with our head coaches and athletic director, several of the coaches lamented the fact that Furman could no longer host post-season NCAA tournaments in their sports because of “the boycott.” I sheepishly admitted that I did not know what the boycott was. The athletic director then filled me in on the history of the flag controversy. The NAACP has an ongoing boycott of states that continue to fly the Confederate Flag (there are still two, South Carolina and Mississippi), and the NCAA honors that boycott by not allowing scheduled post-season tournaments in those two states.

I decided to get involved. I was a newcomer to South Carolina, and hoped that with no baggage from past battles, I could nudge the matter constructively. On my next trip to Columbia I walked to the Capitol and took pictures of the flag on my iPhone from various angles. I started some discreet conversations to see if any kind of compromise might be struck that would get the flag taken down, perhaps to be placed in a glass case as part of an historical display somewhere on the Capitol grounds.

In one of those accidents of life, at that time I happened to be seated next to Ben Jealous, who was then head of the national NACCP, at a banquet in Washington. I broached the issue with him. He said that he could not guarantee it, but he thought if the flag were taken down from its flagpole and placed in glass somewhere, there could well be peace and an end to the boycott. I then talked to Mark Emmert, the President of the NCAA. He said that he was confident that the NCAA would also probably endorse this solution.

Naively, I was buoyed with optimism. Then reality set in. I began to explore the issue more seriously with a few select South Carolina leaders, all of whom privately expressed the view that the flag should go. However, I was counseled that getting it down was politically impossible. I was particularly moved by Jim Barker, who was then president of Clemson, and who had bravely participated in a civil rights march in his early years as that university’s president to urge taking the flag down from the Capitol dome. Everyone I talked to told me the same thing: Good luck, bless you for trying, it’s the right thing to do, but it will never happen. A rock-solid majority of the South Carolina General Assembly was absolutely opposed to removing the flag. No political leader in the state could dare buck that force. To do so would be to face political annihilation. In the press of other events and issues, I let the flag issue slip to my back burner.

I look back at that now with deep regret. I’ve since left the state for a new job in Delaware. It’s not an issue I thought I’d ever be addressing again. Until this week.

Today I offer a reason for taking down the flag that rests not upon accusations of fault or assignations of blame, but on values of healing and peace. All persons of good will and honest perception should concede that many people find the flag offensive because of its associations with slavery and racism. All persons of good will and honest perception should also concede that not everyone who defends the flag is a defender of either slavery or racism. Whether one agrees or disagrees with her conservative politics, Governor Nikki Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants, cannot plausibly be labeled racist. She is not. Her tears over the shooting were not crocodile.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with taking the flag down. Those who defend the flag invoke phrases such as “southern pride” or “southern heritage” as justification. For some, those phrases may be euphemism and code, thin disguises for racism. For others, the phrases may reflect entirely sincere “pride” that is not knowingly or intentionally racist. But even those folks who defend the flying of the flag on such benign grounds know—they know—that the flag has long been deeply wounding to many, and in the aftermath of the Charleston murders, those wounds are now raw and searing.

At the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln sought to heal and unite the nation,. In his Second Inaugural, he reminded us that the North and South both read the same Bible and worshipped the same God and urged us to care for all the nation’s widows and orphans. Today, so that we may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves, let us take down the flag.

What greater act of reconciliation and respect could the members of the South Carolina General Assembly pay to their fallen colleague, Senator and Reverend Clementa Pickney, than to rescind the law under which the flag now so divisively flies?

So, take the flag down. Not out of admission of guilt, or complicity, or evil intent, but out of mercy, charity, compassion, empathy, healing, love. Give up a little pride to grant others a little peace. That is what all in the state, all in the nation, most desperately need. We all want the healing to begin. Taking down the flag is a good place to start.

Rodney Smolla

Rodney Smolla is the former President of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and now the Dean of the Delaware School of Law of Widener University.