Earlier today President Barack Obama eulogized Reverend and South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney. There were numerous references to American history, but on this blog, right now, it is his thoughts concerning the Confederate flag that deserve special attention. But first a reminder of an earlier speech.
On March 21, 1861 the new Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens, offered his observations of why secession and the establishment of a new country was necessary. In it he offered what many at the time acknowledged as the pillars of what I like to call, Confederate Exceptionalism:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man.
This is the historical backdrop of the “pain” with which the president offered his remarks. This is the cornerstone of the flag’s meaning from the war through the civil rights era and beyond.
For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate Flag stirred into many of our citizens. It’s true a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge, including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.
We see that now.
Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness. It would not [be] an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.
It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races, striving to form a more perfect union.
By taking down that flag, we express grace, God’s grace.
Whatever else the Confederate flag means – and it means a lot of different things – we cannot forget where its ‘cornerstone rests.’