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Free speech is a responsibility, not the right to change history

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Nine people will be buried in the next week, partly because the Internet filled a disturbed young man’s mind with racist thoughts — and he believed it all.

This is the high price we pay for free speech.

We will continue to pay because this is the United States. But free speech doesn’t give anyone the right to yell fire in a theater, and it shouldn’t protect people whose simple-minded hate helped turn this kid into a stone-cold killer.

Nor should it allow anyone to rewrite history, to claim racism no longer exists, then go on websites and post rants that prove just the opposite.

In the past week, they have also proven the Confederate flag has become a symbol of division.

Many of them do not understand the history they are mangling, and even those who do are not helping their case.

They are outraged that Gov. Nikki Haley and other Republican leaders have joined the call to remove the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds.

They believe it’s an attack on their heritage, an insult to their forefathers who fought and died to defend South Carolina. They will tell you that their great-granddaddies didn’t own slaves, and weren’t fighting to give anyone else that right. Those men were simply protecting their homes.

They see Haley’s plea to move the flag to a museum as a betrayal, a bow to political correctness. No, it is an acknowledgment of today’s world — most likely forced by big business and presidential candidates.

Some people argue the flag didn’t make the accused Dylann Roof kill those people at Emanuel AME Church. That is technically correct, but it’s a nuanced argument.

And history is not kind to nuance.

Very few Confederate soldiers owned slaves — 3 percent of the country’s population owned 95 percent of the slaves. Most people rich enough to own human beings paid others to take their place in battle, chickens that they were.

Newspapers from 1860 repeatedly reported that South Carolina’s secession was necessitated by the federal government’s infringement on states’ rights. But you won’t find that phrase in the Ordinance of Secession’s accompanying document, the “Declaration of Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.”

It mentions the “encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States” once, but refers to slavery, slaves or slaveholding 18 times. Other than the right to secede, the right to own human beings is the only reason given for secession.

That is the official word — not a letter someone’s great-great grandfather wrote.

It is wrong to judge 19th century men by today’s standards, and it’s true that Confederate soldiers did not take up arms until the United States tried to force them back into the Union. So it can be argued that those men were only fighting to defend their homes.

But the conflict was set in motion by men protecting a lavish lifestyle bankrolled on the backs of slave labor.

It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that a country used patriotism to convince ordinary people to fight the battles of the wealthy.

Nearly a century after Appomattox, a new generation took up the flag as their symbol in the fight against civil rights, against desegregation.

The flag became a symbol of hate.

The websites that formed Roof’s philosophy use the Confederate flag the same way the Ku Klux Klan did — to perpetuate the myth of white superiority.

It may not be fair to allow hate groups to co-opt the flag, but it’s also not fair that nine people died because someone using that flag to announce his bigotry was driven to kill.

Free speech is an important right, but it carries great responsibility. Because of Roof’s hate, state leaders decided the flag is not a statement we should make — not in front of a building that belongs to all South Carolinians.

Actions have consequences, and it is time to put the future of our children ahead of the history of our ancestors.

Some flag defenders have criticized the city of Charleston’s decision to build a statue of Denmark Vesey — a free black man convicted of plotting a slave rebellion that might have killed untold numbers of white people. Some are offended by a monument to this man.

Fair enough.

They should understand that is exactly how many, many African-Americans — and others — feel about the Confederate flag.

So what’s the difference? Vesey was fighting to free oppressed people, a very American ideal. Like free speech.

And fairly or not, the Confederate flag has become a symbol of oppression.

Removing the flag from Statehouse grounds will not end racism; in fact, it might exacerbate it for a while.

One thing should be clear, however: the survival of South Carolina’s history does not depend on a single flag on a monument. Old times here will never be forgotten.

But they shouldn’t be twisted into a justification to hurt others.

Reach Brian Hicks at

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