fresh voices from the front lines of change







As of this morning, the Confederate battle flag no longer flies at South Carolina’s capitol. The work to remove this symbol of hatred from the capitol is finished. Now begins the work of exorcising the legacy of the past it represents.


The Confederate battle flag was first raised over South Carolina’s capitol dome on April 11, 1961, to celebrate the centennial of the start of the Civil War — in which the Confederate states fought to defend slavery and white supremacy. Just a few weeks earlier, 10 black students were arrested for refusing to leave an all-white lunch counter in Rock Hill. Nine of the ten became known as the “Friendship Nine,” when they refused bail, and were sentenced to 30 days at hard labor.

It was an eventful week:

  • Sen. Marrion Gressette, the head of the State Segregation Committee, created in 1951 to recommend measures to maintain segregation, was supporting a resolution condemning former North Carolina Gov. Frank Graham, who had spoken at Winthrop College defending the civil rights movement and calling for integration.
  • Strom Thurmond was fighting in Congress to keep federal funding for segregated schools. Political sentiment against school integration was so strong that state politicians vowed to stop all funding to public schools rather than integrate.
  • The Freedom Ride with integrated bus loads of civil rights workers was on the road, and there were reports of violence along the route.
  • The major story of the week was Kennedy’s executive order to end segregation in work places that do business with the government. The forced integration of South Carolina’s mills outraged politicians and editorial writers.

The flag remained until the following year, when the legislature passed a resolution to display the flag over the state house. The resolution did not include a date for the flag to come down. So, the Confederate battle flag flew over the capitol for 38 years.

“The ruling elite that ran this state all owned slaves. They denied the war was over slavery, insisting that it was over states’ rights. But it was over the states’ right to own slaves and enforce white supremacy,” said historian Daniel Hollis, who was a member of the commission that planned the state’s observance of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. Hollis, who died in 2008, called today’s defenders of the flag “historical revisionists.” Hollis said it was undeniable that white supremacy was vital to the state’s politics in 1861, as it was in 1961.

On January 28, 2015, Judge John C. Hayes III, finally tossed out the convictions of the Friendship Nine.


Almost five months later, white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine parishioners of Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Prior to the murders, Roof photographed himself visiting several slave plantations in South Carolina. In some photographs, he brandished a gun and the Confederate flag. Roof posted the images to his website, where he also posted a manifesto explaining his white supremacist beliefs, his desire for a “race war,” and hinting at the violence to come. When the Confederate battle flag at the state capitol remained at full-mast while US flags flew at half-mast, it sparked the outrage that brought down the Confederate flag at the state capitol, 54 years after it was raised.

The Confederate battle flag no longer flies at South Carolina’s capitol, but its legacy is with us in ways both tangible and intangible.

Flags can be lowered. Statues can be moved to museums, or put into storage. Lakes, schools, bridges, and buildings can be renamed. What’s harder to erase is the legacy of slavery and white supremacy those symbols represent. No one alive today had anything to do with slavery. But as sure as the blood of slaves and slaveholders runs in our veins, it is as much a part of our here-and-now as it is part of our heritage.

When we look at racial disparities in education, we are seeing the legacy of enforced denial of education to slaves. We have seen the re-segregation of public schools, in southern counties that had the greatest concentration of slaves. We have seen increased white enrollment in private schools — called segregation academies — leaving black students disproportionately represented in public schools. Today, we see schools spend less on black students than on white students.

A study published in the European Economic Review looked at counties in 42 states, including 15 former slave states, and found that, “those US counties that in the past exhibited a higher slave share over population turn out to be still more unequal in the present day.” The authors — Graziella Bertocchi of the University of Modena in Italy, and Arcangelo Dimico of Queen’s University Belfast — cite “the persistence of the racial gap in education,” driven in part by “the legacy of slavery” and “the local nature of education provision and funding,” as a primary source of inequality between blacks and whites in these counties:

“The property tax is the main source of funding for locations/counties, and thus for public education support,” they note. “Because of the ‘separate but equal’ educational policies applied in Southern states until the 1960s, local officers could divert state funding for blacks to finance education for whites. As a result, they could impose a lower property tax and spend less on education.”

Even after legal segregation was abolished, those counties “still kept a lower tax rate,” resulting in “negative effects on public school funding and, therefore, education for blacks.” Education is just one example. In suburbs like Ferguson, federal, state, and local policies that upheld racist housing and employment discrimination policies, denied African-American families decades of wealth-building home equity. In cities like Baltimore, African-American men were hit hardest by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, in which they were disproportionately represented.

We see the flag’s legacy in racial attitudes that persist in the South. In “The Political Legacy of American Slavery,” Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen, from the University of Rochester, analyzed census and opinion polls of more than 39,000 southern whites. They found that white southerners who live in places where slavery and the plantation economy were once dominant, are more likely to express negative attitudes about blacks than white southerners who live in nearby areas that had few slaves. They are also more likely to identify as Republican.

These attitudes likely persisted because in many ways slavery itself persisted in slightly altered forms. As W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” Economic incentives to exploit former slaves led to what Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, defined as an “Age of Neoslavery” that lasted more than a century after the Civil War; former Confederates, determined to restore as much of the old order as possible, fashioned themselves “Redeemers,” and used the Confederate battle flag as their symbol.

In Ending Slavery: How We’ll Free Today’s Slaves, scholar and modern anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales writes that emancipation alone is insufficient, without investment in rehabilitating freed slaves, which he describes in New Slavery: A Reference Handbook as “restoring the personhood of the person”:

The essential condition of bondage is in the minds of the people. …They have been conditioned to accept that their place is at the periphery of society. The process of release and rehabilitation is to restore the personhood of the person, to restore self-esteem, confidence, and the feeling that they too can win.

Without collective investment in rehabilitation, many return to slavery, either by choice, or because of their circumstances are virtually unchanged after being released. Bales writes that the process stopped short with America’s former slaves, who “never got their 40 acres and a mule.”

Instead, laws enacted to intimidate blacks led to the arrests of tens of thousands, who were hit with outrageous fines, or charged for the costs of their own arrests. Unable to pay, they were sold — often by government officials — as forced laborers to mines, railroads, lumber yards, and plantations, and forced to do the bidding of white bosses through beatings and torture. Other southern blacks were locked in a system of sharecropping that kept them tied to the land, forever in debt, and fettered by legal and economic restrictions, even as new European immigrants quickly advanced ahead of them.

As Paul Krugman writes, despite all the progress we’ve made, America still hasn’t escaped “slavery’s long shadow.” Krugman cites two academic papers. One by political scientist Larry Bartels, showed that the white working-class turn against Democrats was almost entirely restricted to the South, where Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” held sway. The other, by economists Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote, identified race as the primary reason America doesn’t have a European-style welfare state, because welfare programs are often seen as helping “Those People.”

It’s no coincidence that nearly half of the 22 states refusing the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion are former Confederate states, or that six million African-Americans — 1 million of whom are stuck in the “Medicaid gap” — live in states where Republican governors and legislators have refused federal funding to expand Medicaid. More than 80 percent of the population in states refusing the Medicaid expansion also live in states that practiced slavery before the Civil War. Slavery is a pretty good indicator of everything from the minimum wage to gun control.

Removing the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina’s capitol grounds seems like a small, cosmetic change, but for black South Carolinians it means their state government no longer embraces a symbol flown in defense white supremacy, segregation, and black subjugation. It means that symbol no longer flies over a capitol that should belong to all South Carolinians.

It is, as President Obama said in his eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, not an insult to the memory of Confederate soldiers, but “an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought—the cause of slavery—was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.” The acknowledgement of that simple truth, and removing a powerful symbol of slavery and segregation from its place of honor, is an opportunity to acknowledge how the legacy that flag represents haunts us today; and to begin the work of finally banishing it, too.

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