It turns out that symbols matter. On Monday, Haley stood up at a press conference and called for the flag to be removed, insisting that the legislature act immediately. If it didn’t, she would call a special session to address it. She was flanked by Tim Scott, a black Republican senator, and Graham also voiced his support for her move. That followed a call over the weekend for the flag’s removal from Mitt Romney, and the RNC followed Haley’s announcement with an endorsement. Walmart also said Monday that it would quit selling Confederate merchandise.
It isn’t as though the flag only now became a lightning rod, though the massacre of nine black South Carolinians in Charleston clearly shifted the tide. Democratic and even Republican presidential candidates have called for it before—John McCain did so in 2000, though only after losing the state’s primary—and in 2000, state legislators moved the flag from atop the capitol to a site nearby on the grounds. But removing it altogether still seemed too politically difficult in the first state to secede from the union.
Even in February 2015, when Public Policy Polling (caveat lector) asked about the flag, half of South Carolinians backed keeping it, with only 40 percent opposed. That despite the fact that nearly half also felt it was bad for the state’s image. (Astonishingly, 35 percent said they thought it was good for the Palmetto State’s reputation.)
It’s still possible that South Carolina legislators could hold a speedy vote and in doing so reject the idea of removing the flag. Given that doing so would require bucking all three statewide elected officials and the national Republican Party, it seems unlikely—though one legislator has already likened Haley’s call to a “Stalinist purge.” (The Charleston Post & Courier is conducting a running whip count here.)
The question for the coming days is this: Is the fury directed at the flag in South Carolina, ignited by the Charleston massacre, contained within the Palmetto State’s borders and subject to local pressure and grief? Or can the righteous anger and arguments directed at that flag work in other states as well?
If it’s the latter, there are many places for it to spread. Elements of either the battle flag or the flag of the Confederate States of America were incorporated into the flags of several other Southern states, most notably Mississippi. Major highways are named for Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Statues of Lee, Davis, and CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens represent their states in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. The database of the National Center for Education Statistics shows at least 20 schools named for Robert E. Lee, and nine apiece for Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.
In 2011, then-Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. told me about traveling through the South after his election, hoping to better understand American history. He was shocked by what he saw—even as soon as he crossed the border from Washington into Virginia and discovered he was on the Jefferson Davis Highway. “In the South, many states are replete with high schools named after the generals who were some of the great traitors of our country’s history,” he said. “Jefferson Davis has nothing named for him in Washington, and Abraham Lincoln has very little named for him in Virginia.” (Jackson was later convicted of wire and mail fraud and resigned.)