This column was first published in The Charlotte Observer.
On Friday morning, I got up early and drove to Columbia from my home in Charlotte to see the flag come down. For me, it was as much about intellectual curiosity as it was about emotion.
Truth be told, the Confederate flag means nothing to me. And for reasons I don’t fully understand, I find that troubling.
I wanted to feel joy. I wanted to experience jubilation. I wanted to celebrate the vanquishment of an emblem that, for so many years, had stood for nothing but hate, bigotry and the misguided notion of white supremacy.
Instead, I felt sadly empty.
I bumped into a high school classmate I hadn’t seen in 35 years.
“I still can’t believe it’s coming down,” he said. “I never thought I’d see this day.”
Why didn’t I feel that sense of wonderment?
Like just about every other black man who grew up in the waning days of segregation in South Carolina, I learned early on to loathe that flag. And when state lawmakers refused to take it down from the State House grounds and the state NAACP launched its boycott in 2000, my family and I discovered the joys of the North Carolina mountains instead of the South Carolina coast.
But as I stood there looking at that Confederate banner, I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about, and why it took the slaughter of nine innocent people in Charleston on June 17 before state lawmakers would do what should have been done decades earlier.
Have we now become a nation where the simple act of political courage and human decency is a cause for statewide celebration?
I understand completely why some South Carolina residents – especially African-Americans – would rejoice at the removal of the flag from the State House grounds. For far too long, it has felt like a slap across our collective faces, an insult that too many of our white neighbors have felt privileged to ignore.
I saw that long-awaited jubilation in the face of an elderly black woman I passed near the Capitol.
“I feel good today,” she beamed as she hurried by.
No need for conversation; I knew exactly what she meant.
Woman in ‘widow’s weeds’
But not everyone in the Palmetto State will share her joy, and though the flag is rightfully gone, so much of its Confederate sentiment remains.
Not far from the flagpole, I talked to a lone white woman in a black antebellum dress, hoops and all. She said her name was Cindy Lampley, a resident of Cayce, S.C. The dress, she said, was a “widow’s weeds,” Confederate attire that signified mourning.
She carried a picture of a Confederate brigadier general, a man who she said was the first cousin of her fourth great-grandfather. He fought with Stonewall Jackson, she said, but got himself killed before he could make a proper name for himself in the history books.
Even now, 150 years later, Lampley refused to acknowledge that slavery played even the slightest role in sparking the Civil War.
“I think South Carolina had the right idea when they fought this war,” she says. “We were under an oppressive government, as we are today. It was just too much.”
A small, symbolic step
Not far away stood James Bowden of Fort Mill, S.C., a black man, a retired consultant. He rushed to engage every white person he saw who was carrying a Confederate battle flag, and I wanted to know why.
“I’m trying to help them understand from a different perspective,” he said. “At the same time, I’ve got to be willing to listen to them.”
But was he really listening, or was he simply trying to get his point across?
He certainly wasn’t hearing a black man dressed as a Confederate soldier, who was telling a group of black people why they should revere the Rebel flag and despise the likes of Abraham Lincoln, whom he called “the biggest bigot in the country” at the time of the Civil War.
“Now that right there,” Bowden said, “is a total disgrace.”
The only real encouragement I found came from a group of children who were attending a Benedict College summer camp. They came to see a moment in history, said their teacher, T. Mills.
While others in the crowd shouted “take it down,” those young Americans shouted “USA.”
I have nothing in common with those who revere the Confederate flag, especially those who deny its racist history.
But taking it down, as necessary as it was, will not overnight make us a better nation. Come Saturday morning, the issues that divide us will still be in place, and so will the structural inequities that leave so many African-Americans socially and economically disenfranchised.
Once the political will was found, it took less than 15 seconds to bring down the Confederate flag on Friday.
How long will it take before we find that same courage to address the many underlying issues that keep us divided?
Perhaps for today, it’s enough to celebrate that a tiny step was taken.