Decades Overdue and Instantly Changed

Who led? Who followed? What comes after the Confederate flag debate?

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley speaks to press outside the Emanuel AME Church on June 19, 2015.  (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

"The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy," writes The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates in a piercing essay on the history of slavery, a symbol, and the South.

[South Carolina Gov.] Nikki Haley deserves credit for calling for the removal of the Confederate flag. She deserves criticism for couching that removal as matter of manners. At the present moment, the effort to remove the flag is being cast as matter of politesse, a matter over which reasonable people may disagree. The flag is a "painful symbol" concedes David French. Its removal might "offer relief to those genuinely hurt," writes Ian Tuttle. "To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred," tweeted Mitt Romney. The flag has been "misappropriated by hate groups," claims South Carolina senator Tom Davis.

This mythology of manners is adopted in lieu of the mythology of the Lost Cause. But it still has the great drawback of being rooted in a lie. The Confederate flag should not come down because it is offensive to African-Americans. The Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans. The embarrassment is not limited to the flag, itself. The fact that it still flies, that one must debate its meaning in 2015, reflects an incredible ignorance. A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren't quite sure why.  

Read Coates's entire essay here. Then reread and share it before considering my more prosaic approach below to the fallout from last week's slaughter at Mother Emanuel.

The martyrs: Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74;  Myra Thompson, 59.

The early adapters: Then-Georgia Gov. Zell Miller tried to remove the "Southern Cross" of the Confederate battle flag from his state's banner in 1992. He failed. "With neither warning nor fanfare," then-Gov. Jeb Bush unilaterally removed the Confederate "Stainless Banner" from the grounds of the Florida Capitol in early 2001.

(RELATED: Jeb Bush's Clear Record on the Confederate Flag)

The leaders: Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney tweeted Sunday, "Take down the #Confederate Flag at the SC Capitol," increasing pressure on a weak-kneed GOP presidential field. Hillary Rodham Clinton put the debate in a larger context of subtle and often unacknowledged racism. "Our problem is not all kooks and Klansmen," she said. "Let's be honest, for a lot of well-meaning open-minded white people, the sight of a young black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear."

The followers: Haley and fellow Republicans called on the state legislature to remove the flag from the state Capitol grounds. "This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state," Haley said. She deserves credit for a deft response to the murders at Mother Emanuel, but it shouldn't have taken the shedding of blood to do the right thing. There are times when leaders are led—by an angry public, by outside forces, by tragedy, or, in the case of this GOP vice presidential aspirant, an unruly combination of all three.

The national fabric: Perhaps a more significant development occurred in Arkansas, headquarters of retail giant Walmart. "We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer," Walmart spokesman Brian Nick said in a news release. "We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the Confederate flag from our assortment—whether in our stores or on our website." Walmart is the nation's largest private employer, a part of—and reflection of—the broad American community. While millions of its customers view the flag with pride, millions more feel only pain.

(RELATED: SCOTUS Pumps the Brakes On Confederate License Plate)

The n-word: "The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that's still part of our DNA that's passed on. We're not cured of it," President Obama told Marc Maron on the comedian's WTF podcast. "And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'nigger' in public." One could argue the word is unpresidential and provocative. My take: Leadership occasionally requires the use of boundary-busting language to make sure the public hears uncomfortable truths.

The arc of justice: Like gay marriage, the demise of the Confederate flag is both decades overdue and instantaneously present. Abrupt change to an ossified institution creates anxiety on one hand, and premature celebration on the other. Confederate flag supporters should accept this accommodation. Respect the feelings of those who see the flag as an emblem of hate. Those who sought change should humbly accept this victory and build bridges toward greater success.

Let's all remember the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."