History has its place, but not at the people’s house

An honor guard from the South Carolina Highway patrol removes the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds Friday.

The war ended 150 years ago, so it’s about time we quit fighting it.

If that was ever going to happen, the Confederate battle flag had to come down, it had to be taken off Statehouse grounds. People can blame liberals or political correctness all they want, but in the end it was just business.

Democrats had been trying to furl the flag for decades, to no avail. It only happened when the corporations that employ thousands of South Carolinians leaned on Republicans and said that the state doesn’t need this kind of strife.

And they were right.

This does not mean we need to knock down every monument or rename every street associated with this state’s history. This should not be the beginning of a whitewash.

On the contrary, the Civil War was one of the most important, tragic events in this country’s history. We shouldn’t forget it — we should make people learn more about it, and the rest of U.S. history.

Taking that flag off Statehouse grounds does not diminish the state’s history in any way. In fact, it enhances it.

The only thing that would have been better is if it had happened without another civil war.

History is much more complicated than a simple tale of good guys and bad guys.

But these days far too many people are too ADD to realize it.

Some flag supporters will tell you the United States did not go to war to eradicate slavery, but to bring the Confederate states back into the union. And the vast majority of Southern soldiers did not own slaves.

All of that is true.

But even if those soldiers were only defending their homes, they fought on behalf of a government formed predominately for the purpose of protecting slavery. It’s in all the official documents — it’s very black and white.

That is our history. We should learn it and learn from it, and not judge men of the 19th century by 21st century standards. But even if people understood the complicated nuance of the war, and most don’t, the flag has transcended that conflict.

The Confederate battle flag was used by Southern troops for about four years. It has been used as a symbol of oppression for decades.

It’s easy to blame the Ku Klux Klan — men who declare their supremacy over blacks, Jews and homosexuals, and then parade around in white dresses and post illiterate rants on the Internet. But the real problem is segregationist politicians of the 20th century.

Georgia adopted the Confederate battle flag symbol on its state flag in the 1950s, not for any anniversary, but in protest of federally mandated integration.

Other states started flying the flag at their capitols for the same reason. Whether South Carolina did is a matter of debate not worth arguing. The point is, that opposition to civil rights is all that many people alive today have ever known about that flag.

“The flag was a symbol — it wasn’t an artifact in a museum, where it should have been,” says Mayor Joe Riley, who first suggested removing the banner from Statehouse grounds nearly 30 years ago. “The banner was furled after the Civil War and it resurfaced as a symbol protesting integration.”

That’s why the flag had to come down.

In 1869, a great leader declined an invitation to a meeting concerned with erecting monuments on the battlefield at Gettysburg, site of the Civil War’s deadliest battle.

He said, “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”

That man was Robert E. Lee.

He could have been describing perfectly what the Confederate battle flag has come to represent — the sores of war.

Lee saw no need to glorify the war. He’d lived it and knew it was nothing to celebrate. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remember it.

There’s no reason those historical flags can’t fly at Fort Sumter, no need to martyr the Dukes of Hazzard. We just don’t need a divisive flag on the grounds of the people’s house.

Not when it holds so many negative feelings for so many people.

None of the other monuments at the Statehouse include flags. You could argue that, more than anything, the state should fly the POW-MIA flag in honor of all the men and women lost in past wars. But it’s not there.

For many people who can’t recite a single fact about the Civil War, the flag represents not just Southern pride, but white supremacy. Those are the folks now saying we should take down the African-American monument.

Anyone who says that does so because, for them, it really is all about race.

Those attitudes — which helped convince at least one crazy person that killing innocent people was justifiable — are not something the state of South Carolina needs to support, or tacitly endorse.

That ultimately is why the flag had to come down.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.