Charleston and Profiles in Courage

Even though the subtitle of the Realpolitik blog reads “news with views,” I usually tend to reserve personal commentary for the political prospects of various leaders in America, and I do my best to avoid making value judgments about the subjects of my analysis and I try to keep from sharing my personal opinion about many of the controversial issues with which the people about whom I write deal. However, when it comes to today’s news about the decision by South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, to use her constitutional powers to call the state legislature into session to consider the question of the Confederate flag on display on the capitol grounds, I’m going to leave Realpolitik’s typical, well, realpolitik approach aside.

Governor Haley’s stated opposition to the display of the Confederate flag on the South Carolina capitol grounds is, in my opinion, an act of political courage, given that a majority of South Carolinians, as recently as November, supported keeping the flag where it was.

But the climate has changed since last November.

Last week, I was traveling to Texas on a road trip to see the libraries of three American presidents, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Lyndon B. Johnson, when I saw the news coming out of Charleston, South Carolina. By now, most Americans are aware of what happened at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church; a young white supremacist, after spending an hour at a Wednesday night bible study in the church building, murdered nine church members in cold blood.

Cynthia Hurd, 54.

Clementa Pinckney, 41.

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45.

Tywanza Sanders, 26.

Ethel Lance, 70.

Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49.

Susie Jackson, 87.

Daniel Simmons Sr., 74.

Myra Thompson, 59.

Not even a week has passed since this awful tragedy, and many commentators have already turned to broader questions about what this event represents about American society, and about the need for future policy changes. While I’m not incredibly interested in exploring those conversations in depth at this point, I will say this: what happened in South Carolina has demonstrated, in a very real, tragic, and heart-breaking way, that there are some segments of America society that have yet to abandon our country’s “original sin.” And while many, if not most, Americans would say that our nation’s “original sin” was the continued legal protection of slavery until the end of the American Civil War, I would argue that we should broaden our understanding of this “original sin.”

America’s “original sin” was not just the legal protection of slavery, but the prevailing social norms that allowed some Americans to assume that they were inherently superior to others on account of the color of their skin, and that this supposed superiority ought to be manifest in the law, in social practices, and in ways of thinking and speaking.

It was this “original sin,” that of assumed white superiority, that allowed the practice of racially-coded slavery to enjoy legal protections until the end of the American Civil War.

It was this “original sin” that prevented many African-American combatants in the Second World War from receiving their duly-earned Medals of Honor until 1997.

It was this “original sin” that allowed only hundreds of African-Americans to register to vote in the mid-twentieth century in counties where thousands of African-Americans lived.

And it was this “original sin” that prompted a coward to end the lives of nine people last week.

Let there be no confusion in the midst of discussions about whether what happened in Charleston last week was an act of “terrorism.” Regardless of the conversation about “terror,” and what that word means, what happened in Charleston last week was an act of cowardice.

But Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was the pastor of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, who was the youngest African-American to have won election to the South Carolina state legislature, who could have seen the Confederate flag waving every time that he entered the South Carolina State House to work for the people of his district: he was a profile in courage, to borrow John F. Kennedy’s phrase.

But Debbie Dills, a North Carolina florist who risked her life to follow a vehicle driven by someone whom she thought looked like the suspect in the Charleston shootings, and whose call to police led to the arrest of the alleged perpetrator: she is a profile in courage.

But Nikki Haley, who is the first non-white governor of South Carolina, who endured awful, racist slurs during her campaign for the Republican nomination in the state’s 2010 gubernatorial race, who appeared to be fighting back tears the morning after the Charleston murders and said that “the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” who today called for the removal from the state capitol grounds of a flag that symbolizes a dark chapter in the state, and national, history: she is a profile in courage.

The day after the Charleston shootings, I visited the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas. It was Johnson who signed into law several legislative landmarks of the American civil rights movement, and who said in a 1963 speech to the United Nations, “Peace is a journey of a thousand miles and it must be taken one step at a time.”

A pressing task before us is to make right the wrongs wrought by America’s “original sin” in places like Charleston, South Carolina, and in countless other places across our nation. To remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol grounds would represent a small step. It will take the courage of people like Reverend Pinckney, Ms. Dills, and Governor Haley to go the rest of the thousand mile journey.

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