Martin discusses flag issue

Heritage, not hate. Those are the words we’ve seen countless times on bumper stickers in defense of the Confederate flag.

7-15 Page 4A.inddAs a proud Southerner who counts Confederate veterans on both sides of my family, I have pretty much embraced the same mindset. That was the idea behind moving the Confederate flag to the Soldiers Monument 15 years ago. The flag became part of the monument, or so we thought.

It became evident to me that others in our state continued to see the flag on the Statehouse grounds much differently less than 36 hours after our collective hearts were broken over the senseless murder of nine innocent people at the Emanuel AME Church. The church killer had also left a witness to let the world know why he had committed such an unthinkable crime in the sanctuary of a church. He wanted everyone to know that he had killed the people who were studying God’s Word that evening because they were black people and he intended to start a race war. A day or so later, Internet postings of the alleged killer contained pictures of him posing with a gun and a Confederate flag.

There were no riots or civil unrest as we have witnessed in other parts of the country when similar events have occurred. What occurred was the polar opposite. At the alleged killer’s bond hearing in front of a Charleston magistrate, the country heard the victims’ family members express grace, love and forgiveness in a way that stunned a watching world.

Ironically, I was preparing to teach a Sunday School lesson that Sunday from 1 John 4: 7-21 about God’s love for us and how we are to show that love to others in response.

The media’s connection of the killer to the Confederate flag and the one flying in front of the Statehouse was immediate. I received a reporter’s call that Friday morning asking why the Confederate flag at the monument in front of the Statehouse wasn’t at half-mast. My response was that it was a monument flag and wasn’t included in state law as a flag that would provide such a tribute. A bit baffled by the question, it became clear two hours later after the article went online and when NBC Nightly News called asking to do an interview.

Gov. Nikki Haley had the press conference the following Monday to ask the Legislature to move the Confederate flag to the state museum. Emails and phone calls began to pour in both for and against the flag remaining on the Statehouse grounds.

All I could think about as I prepared to return to Columbia the following day was the tremendous Christian response of those family members and the lesson from 1 John that I had just taught. I also had ample reminders of how the flag represented heritage to many in my community and around the state.

Immediately I began to remind the callers and those who emailed that our Southern leaders had encouraged their fellow Southerners to “furl the flag.” I recalled an article that I had read about Gen. Robert E. Lee in the immediate aftermath of the war, when he urged his men to remember the sacrifice of their countrymen but to put away their banners.

I read a biography a few years ago on the great South Carolina General Wade Hampton. He led our state out of reconstruction first as governor and then as a United States senator. It was during his tenure that the Soldiers Monument was erected in front of the Statehouse in 1879. However, no Confederate flag or banner was placed on the grounds of the Statehouse.

This information was in this weekend’s State newspaper: In an editorial in Charleston’s News and Courier of Nov. 3, 1887, the editor, himself a Confederate veteran, wrote that the Confederate flag should not be displayed “at what is intended to be a national celebration or a state celebration.”

“Love it as we may,” he wrote, “it is out of place save in our memories, in our museums, at our strictly Confederate reunions, and, always in our heart of hearts. No Confederate soldier worthy of this name is likely to dissent from this. The howl will come, if at all, from those who trade upon ‘the gray,’ and they never wore it in battle.”

I knew well the history of when the flag was placed on the dome of the Statehouse for the centennial celebration in 1961. It was clearly left there for other reasons after the centennial observance ended. I also knew the history of the 1960s, having lived it as a fourth grader when our county’s public schools were integrated and recalled the civil rights demonstrations that were frequently on the evening news. As I told the Senate last week, it became clear that the flag represented more about the 1960s than it did the 1860s, because our Southern leaders after the war wanted those banners put away.

As General Lee and other southern leaders understood, symbols such as a flag are powerful and can either be used to agitate against the nation coming back together or worse be used in ways that could dishonor those who had died for their defeated cause. For decades those banners remained put away. However, after two generations passed on, the Klan and the Dylann Roofs of today hijacked the most visible remaining banner, the Battle Flag, and used it in ways that dishonored our Southern heritage.

Until last week, our state has been left since the 1960s struggling against the divisiveness caused by the flag on the Statehouse grounds, where clearly one-third of our state’s population viewed it against the backdrop of the Klan’s despicable war on them during the Jim Crow era. We had been told by our black colleagues that they viewed the flag as hurtful, but we didn’t really hear them. It reached a tipping point when a deranged young man who had visibly wrapped himself in the flag committed the ultimate racist act against nine Christians simply because of the color of their skin. Also, the words of 1 John 4 spoke to me as never before, particularly verse 11: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

I could no longer vote to keep the Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds if it caused such pain to our fellow South Carolinians, whom we are commanded to love.

Finally, a common question in many emails concerns the amendment that was offered last week to put the question of the flag to a referendum vote. The last referendum that the Legislature authorized was the local option referendum in 2000 regarding video poker. That referendum was struck down by the state Supreme Court as an unconstitutional delegation of the Legislature’s lawmaking authority under Article III in our state constitution. The attorney general’s office provided a quick informal opinion last week to a member of the Senate that asked if the Legislature could put the flag to a referendum vote. The opinion cited the video poker case and others as precedents against such a decision.