LAURINBURG — Gov. Pat McCrory’s Wednesday statement disavowing the display of the Confederate flag on state license plates was but one ripple in a wave of scrutiny over rebel flags and other Confederate mementos on government grounds throughout the south.
In the aftermath of last week’s shooting at Emanual AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley called earlier this week for the flag to be moved from a place of prominence in front of the South Carolina State House to a museum.
As funerals were held on Thursday for two — Ethel Lance and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton — of the nine victims of a lone white gunman, a Richmond, Virginia monument to Confederate President Jefferson Davis was emblazoned with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in spray paint, defying attempts by the city’s public works department to erase it.
Dylann Roof, charged with nine counts of murder, maintained a website with images of himself bearing the Confederate flag, as well as wearing clothing affixed with the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa.
On Wednesday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley became the first southern governor to use his executive power to remove Confederate banners, as four flags with secessionist symbols were taken down Wednesday from a large monument to rebel soldiers outside that state’s capitol.
Also this week, both of Mississippi’s U.S. senators have endorsed removing the Confederate symbol from the flag the state has flown since Reconstruction.
North Carolina has more than 2,000 active Sons of Confederate Veterans specialty license plates with the group’s logo, which features the Confederate battle flag. After McCrory requested that the N.C. General Assembly revoke the flag’s use, Senate leader Phil Berger said he believes McCrory’s administration already has power to address the issue.
State Rep. Garland Pierce (D-Wagram), chairman of the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus, applauded the governor’s charge but acknowledged that the issue could prove to be a polarizing one.
“I’ve been contacted by some constituents who feel it’s tramping on their rights, who feel the flag should continue to fly,” he said. “I hope that this does not further divide us in terms of people who think they should be able to display it and those who think not.”
Another of Scotland County’s representatives, state Sen. Tom McInnis, showed less enthusiasm toward taking up the issue of the flag in the General Assembly.
“The flag did not kill those people,” he said. “The man took it upon himself, and I look forward to his full punishment as far as the laws allow.
“If they want to have a debate on it, that’s fine, but I’m focused on jobs, teachers, taxes, getting sales taxes realigned to rural North Carolina … I’m not interested in having a conversation about the Confederate flag.”
The furor building in the last week over the topic of the flag, McInnis said, serves only to entrench North Carolina and other states in the past and distract from more relevant matters.
“The flag has been there now for 150 years,” he said. “It’s there, to some it has one appeal and to others it has another appeal. To somebody who doesn’t have a job, is unemployed or underemployed, who doesn’t have education for 21st century jobs, that’s where we need to be putting our focus, not on something like this.”
On Thursday, more than one person told the Exchange anonymously that they would not view a lowering of the Confederate flag — and its tacit glorification of the Confederacy’s slavery-based economy — as a sign of a nationwide change of heart.
“I do believe that you can remove symbols, but if it’s still in people’s hearts, you still have the type of racial hatred that people sometimes possess,” Pierce said. “It’s not the symbol itself, it’s people who buy into that type of hatred and still carry those grudges in their hearts against other people.”
Whether or not widespread removal of Confederate emblems from public spaces comes as a result of the Charleston shooting, the nine who lost their lives last week join a long list of those who will be remembered as martyrs to the cause of equal rights in an era where racism is still far from extinct.
“I think it will go down that the Confederate flag came down because the Charleston Nine, or the Emanuel Nine, they lost their lives to free South Carolina from the past,” Pierce said.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.