Charleston’s Confederate Legacy

My husband and I were in Charleston, South Carolina in the summer of 2011 taking a walking tour of the city when a sudden rainstorm forced us to seek shelter inside a local church. We commented on the church’s beautiful artwork and architecture as we waited for the sun to reappear. Little did we know that only four years later on June 17, 2015, nine people would be shot and killed there during a service. The gunman said that he hoped to spark a race war and posted pictures of himself with a Confederate flag. In response, Confederate flags were removed from display at all businesses out of respect to the victims’ families and the sensitivity of the situation.

Fast forward to last week, when we visited Charleston again. We drove past Emanuel AME church, where thousands of flowers, candles and gifts still adorn the front of the church, a powerful reminder of the slayings there. It felt like Charleston had been wounded, and signs bearing the words “Charleston Strong” were on many buildings we passed. As we drove through the city, we remarked on the absence of Confederate flags, which in the past had been so pervasive we barely noticed their presence.

Some say removal of the Confederate flag is just the first step in erasing signs of racism, and that the next steps should be to remove statues and change street names of any city founders who were known racists or slaveholders. Like many cities, Charleston’s main streets are named after its founding fathers, like Moultrie, Pinckney (also the name of the AME Church’s slain pastor), Rutledge, Butler, and Calhoun. Statues of Moultrie and of other prominent city founders dominate Marion Square Park. These men were not only some of the South’s most avid supporters of slavery, but they also contributed to Charleston’s development. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union and was the birthplace of the Civil War. It may not be possible to erase all signs of racism there without erasing its history.

We took a trip to Ft. Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. After touring the inside of the fort, we climbed to the highest point where we found six flag poles. Our tour guide raised a U.S. Flag on the center pole, but she left the others alone. I wondered why all the flagpoles were left empty until I read a news article in the Charleston Post and Courier the next day which stated that The National Parks Service, which manages Ft. Sumter, says they plan to remove all the large flag poles from the upper fort area except one. The only flag that will be visible from the outside is the one we saw. The rest of the flags, which include the regimental flag of the Ft. Sumter Civil War Confederates, along with the South Carolina State flag, the U.S. Flag as it appeared at the time of the war, and two Confederate flags, will have smaller poles inside the fort with explanations of their significance within the historical context of the fort’s role in the Civil War.

The article also stated that any merchandise in the Ft. Sumter gift shop bearing the Confederate flag has been removed. If the flag was shown in a historical context, such as in a book, it stayed. While we were there, the gift shop was packed with visitors. Whether this was due to extreme souvenir addiction or to avoid the 96-degree heat, we will never know, but I wonder how sales have been affected by the change.

Before the massacre, the flag was viewed by many as a symbol of Southern pride, adorning everything from belt buckles, to clothing, even the General Lee on The Dukes of Hazzard. Since the massacre, the flag has become a symbol many are ashamed of. It seems like one deranged kid’s use of this flag as a negative icon has changed America’s view of it. Leah Libresco’s article “Before Charleston, Not Many Wanted to Take Down the Confederate Flag” states,

“An October 2013 poll by YouGov found that a plurality (38 percent) of Americans opposed flying it in any public place. Nearly as many respondents (34 percent) said they neither approved nor disapproved, and an additional 8 percent simply said that they were unsure.

That poll showed something else: that Americans are ambivalent about what the flag means. When asked if they view the flag as a symbol of racism or a symbol of Southern pride, 20 percent said neither or that they weren’t sure. In the 2013 YouGov survey, 20 percent of Americans said they saw the Confederate flag equally as a symbol of racism and Southern pride. A plurality of Americans (35 percent) saw the flag as primarily about Southern pride, and 24 percent saw it as linked primarily to racism. The more highly educated respondents were, the more likely they were to see the flag as a symbol of racism. However, the difference is modest and doesn’t come with a corresponding drop in the proportion of people identifying the flag as primarily a symbol of Southern pride.”

When it was designed, the Confederate flag was a symbol of secession, about the South’s choice to remove itself from a Union that didn’t uphold the same principles. In the intervening years, the flag’s significance has changed to a more benign symbol of Southern pride. The massacre changed all that. A Google search using the term “Confederate flag” nets the top three articles in reference to the flag’s removal, but a search on the Charleston Post and Courier site lists 915 articles, most of which center on the flag as a symbol of racism.

South Carolina has a unique history that once included racism and the slave trade. Most of the city’s founders were racists, fostered by the culture there at the time, but they also contributed positively to the city’s early life. With enough pressure, Charleston’s leaders may choose to remove other signs of racism, too. They will have to change most of the city’s street names and cultural icons. Ft. Sumter was built, in part, by slaves, so if things get taken far enough, it will have to be closed. How far will Charleston need to go to change its social climate, and at what expense?