The Rise & Fall of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina

RS: The Rise & Fall of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, in the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting, held a press conference Monday with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and legislators from both parties calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from its place on the grounds of the state capitol. This is a good thing. Despite persistent efforts to use the flag as a partisan club, it is worth recalling some history on the matter.

From Fritz Hollings To Jim Hodges: Democrats, Republicans and the Flag

The flag – technically the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, not the “national” flag of the Confederate States of America – was raised over the capitol dome in South Carolina in 1961, at a time when the Democrats completely controlled the state’s government. A South Carolina historian involved in the process recalls:

In 1959, Gov. Fritz Hollings appointed Hollis to serve on a commission to plan the state’s observance of the 100th anniversary of the War Between the States. President Dwight Eisenhower had commissioned a national Civil War Centennial, and the state centennial commissions were to coordinate activities.

“I’m the only one on the commission left alive,” Hollis said in an August interview. “I tried to get them to call it the `Civil War Centennial,’ but they insisted on calling it the `Confederate War Centennial.’…

…Hollis remembers the day the Confederate flag was hoisted over the State House to commemorate the war. The centennial kicked off on April 11, 1961, with a re-creation of the firing on Fort Sumter. The flag went up for the opening celebrations.

“The flag is being flown this week at the request of Aiken Rep. John A. May,” reported The State on April 12. May didn’t introduce his resolution until the next legislative session. By the time the resolution passed on March 16, 1962, the flag had been flying for nearly a year. (This explains why the flag is often erroneously reported to have gone up in 1962).

“May told us he was going to introduce a resolution to fly the flag for a year from the capitol. I was against the flag going up,” Hollis said, “but I kept quiet and went along. I didn’t want to get into it with the UDC girls.” The resolution that passed didn’t include a time for the flag to come down and, therefore, “it just stayed up,” Hollis said. “Nobody raised a question.”

Hollis said he doesn’t recall any racist or political overtones within the commission regarding the hoisting of the flag.

While the flag’s raising may not have been explicitly political or racial, however, the political context in which it was raised and kept flying was inseparable from the civil rights battles of the era and their revival of the federal government’s fight to reimpose the civil rights protections it instituted after the Civil War and then let fall into disuse for nearly a century after the end of Reconstruction. And the South Carolina governor responsible for that decision, Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, was a Democrat – and not just any old ancient Dixiecrat from a dusty, now-forgotten era of different partisan alignments, but a man who served in the U.S. Senate, in which he was warmly welcomed in the Democratic caucus, for 40 years from 1966 to 2005, alongside people like Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), Hillary Clinton, Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer. In 2010, our current, sitting Vice President paid warm, glowing tribute to Hollings at the dedication of a library named for him at the University of South Carolina:

The Vice President shared stories of his 36 years with “Fritz” Hollings in the U.S. Senate, both as a friend and a colleague. At one point he Biden stated that Hollings is the man “who is more responsible for my standing at this podium as vice president of the united states than any man alive.”

He went on to say “Sometimes that probably causes his [sic] trouble, but that is literally true. That is not hyperbole.” Later Biden highlighted the many accomplishments of Hollings’ political career and summed up by saying “I can go on and on and on giving proof to the assertion I make that I think he’s the most significant national figure to ever come out of this state in terms of length and breadth of his career and what he’s done, or out of any state.”

The partisan tilt of the state’s politics, of course, had shifted a good deal by 1996, when Republican Governor David Beasley proposed bringing the flag down and moving it to a less prominent site on the capitol grounds. Beasley’s plan never got through the state legislature, and was opposed by the NAACP. Democrats, seeing an opportunity, shrewdly pounced. The 1998 governor’s race was openly fought mainly over Beasley’s opposition to video poker, but Democrat Jim Hodges carefully avoided the flag issue while his video poker allies poured money into ads pounding Beasley over it:

The industry, which has betting machines in grocery, gas station and poker “casinos” across the state, is putting money into every conceivable vehicle to defeat Beasley, who has tried to legislate and regulate video poker out of business. In addition to “Ban Beasley” billboards, radio ads and a “dump Beasley” web site, the industry is providing much of the financing for the state Democratic Party, Hodges’s campaign, for a pro-Confederate flag organization attacking Beasley and for an ad hoc alliance of moderate Republicans who have defected from their party.

…While Democrats pound Beasley on the lottery, a right-wing group called the Palmetto League, also financed in part by video poker interests, has been on television with an ad attacking Beasley for changing positions on the flag and for exaggerating his athletic achievements in track events as a youth in a highly publicized 1995 talk to school children. “He breaks his promises and lies to school children,” a narrator declares.

Hodges had previously been a critic of the flag, but abandoned that principle to win the election:

In May of 1998, Hodges met with several leaders of the pro-flag community, including the president of the Council of Conservative Citizens. That’s right: the same Council of Conservative Citizens called a “white supremacist political organization” in a House resolution sponsored by SC Congressman Jim Clyburn. According to The (Columbia, SC) State, “Hodges got right to the point. He said that, as governor, he would not initiate any action to bring the banner down.”

Though Hodges has supported the Beasley plan to remove the flag less than a year earlier, he pledged “not to revive that effort” if elected. Not long after, Hodges’ new-found friends in the Council of Conservative Citizens began receiving contributions to their pro-flag PAC from — the video poker industry! This money was used to fund media targeting the pro-flag base still angry over Beasley’s betrayal of their cause.

Bill Clinton could not have been prouder:

I want to say, I might have been the happiest non-South Carolinian in the entire United States of America when Jim Hodges was elected Governor in 1998. When he filed, Erskine Bowles and his wife, Crandal, told me that he would be elected. And I got so used to Republicans winning down here, I have to admit I was a Doubting Thomas. But they turned out to be right, and it’s been good for South Carolina. And he and Rachel have really brought dignity and direction to the Governor’s office.

As it turned out, Beasley’s compromise – which created the current placement of the flag – ended up passing the Legislature with bipartisan support in 2000 (again over the NAACP’s objections), and was signed into law by Hodges once the South Carolina presidential primary was over and there was no more partisan mileage to be dragged out of beating up George W. Bush for steering clear of the issue. And there things stayed until Gov. Haley’s press conference on Monday.

Partisan Blinders

For some time now, liberals have been screaming about the Confederate flag, but their outrage is always selective and disappears when Democratic politicians like Hodges need to get elected. Bill Clinton himself went out of his way to commemorate the Confederacy by signing a bill in 1987 specifically noting that “[t]he blue star above the word “ARKANSAS” is to commemorate the Confederate States of America.” The Daily Caller (linked above) has more on that episode, including the refusal of either Clinton or Gore to disassociate themselves from this in 2000 when asked. Hillary Clinton, just today, was cheering on Wal-Mart for dropping Confederate flag merchandise from its stores – but she said nothing on the issue when she sat on Wal-Mart’s Board of Directors for six years. And the Washington Post has a look at some of the Confederate flag-themed buttons snapped up by Clinton-Gore supporters in 1992 and never disavowed by the campaign:

Howard Dean in 2003, famously declared that “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks”. Two years later, they made him chairman of the Democratic Party. We’re not talking here about the Democrats’ role in slavery, which after all is the fault of people long dead, or the Democrats’ role in segregation, which is passing as well into history. Fritz Hollings, Jim Hodges and Howard Dean are the very recent past. The Clintons and Joe Biden are still with us.

Meanwhile, Republicans can never win. Haley gets blasted by liberals even when she does what they demanded. Mitt Romney repeated his stance last week on removing the flag; he’d been saying that since 2008, but got zero credit for it from the national media in 2012. When Jeb Bush took down the Confederate flag in Florida in 2001, he was criticized by a prominent Democrat, Kendrick Meek, the son of a Congresswoman and himself the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in 2010:

At the time, however, State Sen. Kendrick Meek, a black Democrat from Miami and vocal critic of Gov. Bush, alleged that Bush was looking to improve his standing with black voters in advance of the 2002 election.

How dare a Republican try to improve his standing with black voters! Which is what so much of this is about – that and, as in the perennial debates over evolution, an effort by parochial urban liberals to signal to other members of their tribe their dislike for faraway people they neither like nor understand, and to congratulate themselves for moral superiority at no cost (it takes no courage to say something all your friends already agree with). The issue rises in prominence when liberals feel they are only beating up on people and places that elect Republicans, and then suddenly disappears when it’s about Democratic politicians wanting votes. In that sense, it’s a microcosm of the broader tendency to whitewash the history of racial politics in America to eliminate all the Democratic villains and Republican heroes from a story in which the real truth is much more complex and different from the narrative.

All History Is Local

Personally, the Confederate flag has never had any meaning for me but that of a symbol of yet another of America’s defeated enemies. I’ve always regarded the flag’s support among some corners of my own party and movement as something of an embarrassment, and share Erick’s view of why it’s un-Christian to display it in your home. But then, I live and work in New York City, have (except for one semester on Capitol Hill in college) never lived west or south of the New York-New Jersey border, and none of my ancestors lived in this country before World War I. It’s cheap and easy for me to say that, and a lot of the piling on from conservatives far from the South has always seemed a bit opportunistic to me, given the deeply local nature of the issue, and the local nature of any solution.

Still, I can support Gov. Haley doing the right thing without reservation, even if she’ll get no thanks for doing it. Whatever you could possibly say in defense of the Confederate flag as a historical or cultural emblem, nothing good can come of keeping it flying on government property – not a museum, a war cemetery, or other location set aside to history, but the grounds of the statehouse – in the 21st Century. Like Erick, I’m proud of our site’s early and vigorous support of her since 2010. And she’s doing it the right way – just as Jeb did when he took the flag down in Florida in 2001, just as Greg Abbott did (with the support of Rick Perry) in fighting all the way to last week’s Supreme Court decision allowing Texas to keep the Confederate flag off license plates, just as happened in Georgia (where, as Ed Kligore notes, Newt Gingrich was an early supporter of conservative Democrat Zell Miller’s early-90s effort to take the stars and bars out of a state flag that Jimmy Carter had never touched).

That is, she’s dealing with a state issue by engaging the people of the state (and given the bill that passed under Hodges, this requires an act of the legislature). As prominent as South Carolina’s role in the Confederacy was, it is only four years in the history of a state that traces its roots back to the royal charter of the colony in 1663. The Confederate flag’s role in South Carolina since 1865 has been solely that of a symbol – but the meaning of symbols, especially symbols of resistance to outsiders, can only be changed from within. Just as Florida, Texas and Georgia had to deal with their histories, and just as Mississippi and Virginia (where Terry McAuliffe is only belatedly scrambling to follow Abbott and Perry’s lead on the license plate issue) are still doing, this is a step that could only ever come from within South Carolina. The very people who are always telling us to “have a national conversation” about this or that seem to forget that the whole point of taking symbolic steps towards reconciliation and reckoning is that it they have to come from within or the symbolism is meaningless. I know I’ve made this point before about President Obama’s habit of “apologizing” for things as a way of blaming them on other people, but repenting for someone else’s sins is just cheap moral preening. I should note that what Gov. Haley is doing – taking a stance on a hot-button cultural issue where she has to side with her ideological adversaries against her own supporters – is something Barack Obama in particular has never done on any issue in his entire career.

At the same time, while taking the flag down is the right move and has been for some years now, I can’t fault politicians who have felt that focusing on concrete reforms was a better use of their political capital than staging a fight over symbols of the past, let alone national politicians who steered clear of counterproductive blustering about its removal. Although Nikki Haley grew up in South Carolina, I suspect the flag never meant much to her either – she was born in 1972, and her parents were Sikh immigrants from the Punjab, a region with its own history of separatist controversy and strife. But she’s devoted her efforts to political fights with much more tangible stakes than this the past four years, and she’s now safely in her second term, something neither Beasley nor Hodges made it long enough in office to see. Only now is there a political moment to do this without a draining battle, and she’s making use of that for the right purposes. But she didn’t act sooner because she had more important things to do, for which she was elected and re-elected by the people of her state.

The partisan and ideological battle, of course, will rage on. Democrats will keep pushing until they can find some pockets of resistance to use as a wedge issue and keep stoking their base’s resentments, as the logic of the 2016 election demands. Already, the liberal/progressive commentariat, which has never met a limiting principle and never grasps the irony of their non-judgmental self-image, is moving on to pressuring retailers to stop selling the flag entirely, which strikes me as yet another symptom of our all-outrage-all-the-time culture, as censoriousness that only masquerades as tolerance. But facts are stubborn things. The rise and fall of the Confederate flag in South Carolina is not the partisan narrative they’d like you to read.