Early on April 3, 1865 shortly before Union troops entered Richmond, Richard Gill Forrester, 17-year-old free African American, ran to the Virginia State Capitol and raised the US (Union) flag. Four years earlier, when Virginia seceded from the Union, Forrester, who worked as a page at the Capitol, rescued the flag and hid it safely in his home after he saw it lowered and discarded by Confederates.
One hundred and fifty years later, a Confederate flag was lowered from its pole at the South Carolina State Capitol. A black state trooper carefully carried the folded flag and handed it over to be stored with other Confederate relics.
It was Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, who preserved the Union and whose vision and leadership defeated the proponents of slavery. It was Governor Nikki Haley, also a Republican, and the daughter of Indian immigrants, who had the courage to call for the removal of a rebel flag that was raised again just fifty years ago as a symbol of defiant resistance to civil rights and integration.
Could the dramatic events of recent days be the start of a new chapter for the Republican Party in the South? Could the extraordinary response to the massacre at Emanuel AME Church and the furor surrounding the flag turn out to be a liberating moment for a party that solidified its southern power by playing on racial fears and resentments but is now caught in a trap of its own making? Will Governor Haley recognize that the removal of the flag, while symbolically powerful, is just the first step? Will those leaders who grieved for their colleague and had the guts to do the right thing regardless of political consequences now affirm that healing and reconciliation is not possible without equity in our social and economic structures? Could the party of Lincoln return to the best of its historical values?
Those who take political risks need support. Democrats should avoid self-righteousness. They have their own shameful history. It was southern Democrats who enforced Jim Crow legislation for 100 years and fiercely resisted the civil rights movement. George Wallace was a Democrat, not a Republican. Nor should the North feel superior in matters of racial justice. The ten most segregated cities include New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit and Boston.
One foundation that South Carolina and other southern states may build on is a shared sense of spirituality among whites and blacks. This was evident in the public statements following the Charleston shooting. The community refused to be divided. There was an awakening among Christians to the fact that the moral teachings of their faith demanded action to remove the offending symbol. The South African experience may prove instructive. For decades the Dutch Reform Church, as the “official church” of South Africa, justified apartheid, giving a theological cover to the white power structure. In 1986, however, the church formally denounced its attempts at biblical justification of apartheid, and in 1989 it condemned apartheid as a sin. This action played some role in helping to move the country toward a peaceful transition to democracy.
Will the response to the Charleston shootings and the renouncing of the Confederate flag open up a constructive dialogue about how to build a more just and inclusive society for all Americans? As President Obama said in his extraordinary eulogy for the slain Senator Pinckney, “God works in mysterious ways.”