Early Thursday morning, the State House of South Carolina voted to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State Capitol. Gov. Nikki Haley has pledged to sign the bill immediately, and the flag may come down as soon as today.
Frederick Douglass, the former slave who escaped to freedom, and became a major abolitionist and civil rights leader a century and a half ago, foresaw this day. But he foresaw, too, that it would be a long time coming.
Speaking in Boston just days before the South surrendered at the end of the Civil War, Douglass warned that the North’s victory would not mean that that war had truly ended: “That enmity will not die out in a year, will not die out in an age,” he predicted.
As a former southerner himself, Douglass knew just how deep allegiance to the Southern slave-holding culture went. He declared:
“I believe that when the tall heads of this Rebellion shall have been swept down, you will see those traitors, handing down, from sire to son, the same malignant spirit which they have manifested, and which they are now exhibiting, with malicious hearts, broad blades, and bloody hands in the field, against our sons and brothers.”
Six years later, in 1871, Douglass wrote that, “A rebellion is upon our hands to-day far more difficult to deal with than that suppressed, but not annihilated, in 1865.” He was speaking of the rising wave of mob violence and terrorism directed against African Americans all across the region. Like a “pestilence,” Douglass observed, “this last form of the rebellion – covert, insidious, secret, striking in the darkness of night, while assuming spotless robes of loyalty in the day – is far more difficult to deal with than an open foe.”
Has the age of “enmity” finally ended? Has the “malignant spirit” finally died away? Has the “pestilence” finally abated?
The answer to all of these questions is “no.” The hateful actions of Dylann Roof remind of us of that. So do the white supremacist websites Roof found appealing. So do the many Confederate flags displayed in places across the South -- and beyond -- today, emblazoning T-shirts, affixed to car bumpers, and worn as lapel pins in business suits.
The heritage these flags stand for was a bloody war initiated by the South. Those Southerners who fired the first shots to attack U.S. troops at Fort Sumter – just a mile or two from the church where Roof gunned down nine black worshippers – aimed not only to “defend” slavery, but to promote slavery’s spread across the nation, especially in the West. The defeat of the South was the defeat of the slavery system.
That defeat is still mourned by many sympathizers with the Confederate cause across the nation, who have somehow forgotten that the Lost Cause was the cause of slavery. To them, the Confederate flag is an innocent symbol, a symbol that honors the Confederate dead and preserves the memory of their gallantry and fighting spirit.
To black Americans, meanwhile, these flags send a clear, painful, and frightening message:You don’t belong here. By being here, you are in danger. This nation is not for you. It was no coincidence that those who opposed the civil rights movement for desegregation and integration across America began to resurrect the use of the flag in the 1950s and 1960s.
Americans who refuse to acknowledge the connection between the Confederate flag and the horrors of slavery and white supremacy are still in the grip of a “malignant spirit” handed down from generation to generation from 1865 to this day.
It is a fine thing that the Confederate flag will no longer fly above the South Carolina state capitol. But displaying the Confederate flag anywhere is, at bottom, an act of hate. It should be recognized as such, and punished as a hate crime.
Given the millions who suffered under the whip of slave masters, and all the families separated as slave traders sold sons and daughters away from their parents, and wives away from their husbands, All Americans should recoil from the Confederate flag with the same horror we feel for the Nazi swastika.
That, I feel confident, is what Frederick Douglass would think.