The grand old flag and a not-so-grand flag

The Confederate battle flag flies outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia, S.C., June 23, 2015. Within five days of the Charleston massacre, support for the flag fell away, with calls from across the state to remove it from the State House. (Travis Dove/The New York Times)

“You’re a grand old flag, you’re a high-flying flag, and forever in peace may you wave.

“You’re the emblem of the land I love, the home of the free and the brave.”

— George M. Cohan

Let’s be clear: the flag George M. Cohan was writing about is the American, not the Confederate flag. (More on this later.)

It may seem difficult to find much to celebrate this Fourth of July, so close to the horrific slaughter of eight black parishioners and their pastor by a white gunman at an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The shooting transfixed our city, state, nation, and indeed the world. It easily could have made of Charleston another Ferguson, another Baltimore, another way station on another long, hot summer of discontent, arson, and looting. That and more is what the alleged shooter wanted. He wanted to start a war between the races. He wanted that war to start here, in Charleston.

How badly he misread our city, our people, our history. How ignorant he was of the Christian tenets of the AME Church, how dismissive of the historic progress toward racial equality Charleston and South Carolina have made, particularly in the last 60 years. That’s two generations. Now we build bridges, not walls, between the races. We talk the talk, we walk the walk. We gladly will put our record up against that of any other state in the Union, even though, admittedly, we had a longer and more painful journey to make than most when the civil rights movement began.

Out of all the soaring rhetoric spoken at the funeral services for the slain, one message came through loud and clear. It was this: Not in Charleston, not in South Carolina, not in our church. The cowardly murderer of the AME Nine failed to achieve his stated objective. He failed utterly. An act of amazing grace on the part of the families of the black victims astonished and moved a nation, a world. Given an opportunity to speak at a court hearing for the person charged with having done them such grievous harm, they forgave him. They urged God to have mercy on his soul.

They did not have to do this. They could have, as many might have expected and feared, showered him with the hatred he so clearly deserved. Instead, they showered him with compassion and love. It took guts. It took courage. It took ... grace. Who would have thought it? Who would have dreamed? Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote that these families deserve a place on the short list for a Nobel Peace Prize. She’s right.

There is still much left to do. It seems likely that if not now, then soon, the state Legislature will act to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia. I’ve been conflicted about this. It’s clear the flag, to many, is a symbol of racial injustice and divisiveness. It’s also clear that, to many others, it’s a symbol of the courage and the sacrifice of the Confederate soldier near whose monument on Statehouse grounds it has flown since taken down from the Capitol dome (where it never should have flown in the first place).

As South Carolinians, as Americans, we should not put ourselves in the position of attacking one part of our heritage while simultaneously promoting another. This is what ISIS marauders and terrorists are doing when they shamelessly destroy ancient artifacts, mosques, monuments and mausoleums in lands they conquer. We do not want this in America.

There are public places where the presence of Confederate and pre-Civil War monuments (and yes, the flying of the Confederate battle flag) is appropriate (e.g., museums, cemeteries, battlefields, certain other historic sites). There are public places where it is never appropriate (e.g. Capitol domes, City Halls, police headquarters, state and local office buildings).

Let the appropriate ones be. Do not let removal of the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds signal the beginning of an all-out assault on the presence of Civil War and antebellum monuments where they are symbolic of our common — yes, common — heritage.

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.