One hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the symbology of rebellion and disunity may finally be falling out of favor in the South. Yesterday, Nikki Haley gathered with both Republicans who had previously supported the Confederate flag flying on state capitol grounds and asked the legislature to take it down. Shortly afterward, the Republican speaker of Mississippi’s state called for changing the state flag to remove the Confederate device within it:
Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said Monday night that the Confederate emblem in the state’s official flag has to go.
“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Gunn, a Clinton Republican, said in a statement. “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi’s flag.”
It’s the first time a Mississippi Republican elected official has publicly called for the removal of the emblem that served as the battle flag flown by the Confederate army during the Civil War. Later, it was adopted by anti-Civil Rights groups.
That may run into a little more headwind than in South Carolina. Fourteen years ago, voters selected that design for the state flag in a referendum, wit 64% of the voters choosing the current flag with the Confederate device. Governor Phil Bryant predicted that the legislature wouldn’t challenge that referendum now, but Gunn’s statement may change that in the same way Haley freed up Republicans to oppose the continued state display of the flag in South Carolina.
Speaking of which, presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul now feels free to talk tough on the Confederate symbol, too. In an interview with WKRO in Orange, Florida, Paul told host Jeff Kuhner that it was “inescapably a symbol of human bondage and slavery”:
“No, I agree, I think the flag is inescapably a symbol of human bondage and slavery, and particularly when people use it obviously for murder and to justify hated so vicious that you would kill somebody I think that that symbolism needs to end, and I think South Carolina is doing the right thing,” Paul told radio host Jeff Kuhner on WKRO radio on Tuesday morning. …
“There have been people who have used it for southern pride and heritage and all of that but really to I think to every African-American in the country it’s a symbolism of slavery to them and now it’s a symbol of murder for this young man and so I think it’s time to put it in a museum.”
It’s been long past that time, at least when it comes to government endorsement of those symbols. Haley’s action yesterday gave Republicans like Rand Paul an opening to take this kind of stand, but more to the point, she mooted the question so the issue will die out long before the primary debates take place in the Palmetto State. In my column for The Week, I suggest that Republicans break out the thank-you cards for removing a quadrennial headache, and an ongoing irritant in GOP efforts to engage with African-American voters:
South Carolina has an early position in the presidential primaries, and the Confederate flag has been a tripwire for Republicans at least since 2000. Thanks to the efforts in the state to end the display, Republican presidential candidates had been pressed in 2000 about whether they supported the state’s official endorsement of the Confederate flag — and ended up in a political vise that forced them to take a divisive position in a state where Democrats don’t normally compete. Neither George W. Bush nor John McCain opposed the state-sponsored flag display in 2000, a decision that McCain later conceded was regrettable pandering. In 2008, both McCain and Romney recommended that the state remove the flag, while Mike Huckabee endorsed it. Activists ran ads on his behalf attacking the two national frontrunners. Huckabee finished a close second to McCain in the January 2008 primary and picked up five delegates.
After last week’s massacre, the flag question would have arisen even more emphatically in 2016 than in the past four cycles. In fact, it had already begun, with reporters demanding positions from this new crop of GOP hopefuls, and voters paying particularly close attention to the answers in the wake of the national focus on Emanuel AME Church and its grieving community in Charleston.
Some will argue that this wouldn’t have mattered in South Carolina. Even with Barack Obama on the top of the ticket in the wave election of 2008, McCain won the Palmetto State by nine points on his way to a lopsided loss nationwide. With Obama’s retirement in 2016, though, Republicans have an opportunity to start fresh with younger voters and those in minority communities. The RNC certainly wants to reach those voters and at least improve engagement. Had Republicans been forced to defend the flag yet again, or walk away from an opportunity to acknowledge its potent symbolism for blacks in South Carolina, that would have sent a message about the lack of insight and empathy from the GOP toward those communities throughout the entire nation — and could have blown an opportunity for a fresh start.
Instead, Nikki Haley shouldered the political risk and neutralized the issue for Republicans far ahead of the prime-time campaign season. She succeeded by doing the right thing and taking action for unity to match her earlier calls for healing. She may or may not pay a political price in the state if she decides to run for office in South Carolina after her second term as governor expires, but Republican presidential candidates can thank Haley’s sense of leadership for getting them off of a very uncomfortable hook.
This matters when it comes to turning a corner with black voters. Republicans often will argue that the civil-rights issues like Jim Crow and the hoses on peaceful protestors belong to Democrats, which is true, and that African-Americans need to get past the accusations of the “southern strategy” of the 1970s and give the GOP another chance. It’s a good argument, but how can we ask black voters to get over the 1970s when Republicans can’t bring themselves to tell Southern voters to get over the 1860s?
If Republicans want to preach unity and togetherness, we have to stop endorsing or pussyfooting around the symbols of disunity and rebellion. It’s not about the Charleston massacre; it’s about looking toward the future rather than being held hostage by the past, and it should have happened years ago. Nikki Haley has given Republicans the political cover to make that choice. Let’s hope the GOP doesn’t blow it.
Addendum: Do the Clintons have to answer for the flag? You bet — and I’ll address that in an upcoming post.