Confederate flag deserves history’s harsh verdict


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Chase: U.S. must have the kind of reckoning Germany had when it enacted national hate crime laws and banned display of the swastika

He says Dylann Roof evoked the same cultural paranoia that animated nearly a century of lynching in the United States

Editor’s Note: Robert T. Chase, a professor of history at Stony Brook University, was formerly the public historian at the Avery Research Center, College of Charleston. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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To begin his Charleston massacre, the confessed murderer Dylann Storm Roof coldly told his victims the cause that animated his deadly violence. “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country,” Roof exclaimed, “and you have to go.”

Each of these frightful exclamations – the fear of miscegenation (interracial sex), the fear of black empowerment and the threat of racial genocide – echo a history that lives on today in a visceral lineage of white domestic terrorism. By drawing on the notion of miscegenation and concocted fears of black male sexuality, the murderer evoked the same cultural paranoia that animated nearly a century of lynching in the United States.

Robert Chase
Courtesy Robert Chase
Robert Chase

In his manifesto, Roof confessed that he chose Charleston because of its connection with history: “I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country.” Stating that “segregation is not a bad thing,” Roof’s blog photographs are littered with historical symbols of racial oppression (both domestic and global): a photograph of Roof standing next to wax slaves, the South African flag during apartheid, Nazi-era symbols, the Rhodesian flag, the burning of the American flag and, most prominently, the Confederate flag.

After the Charleston massacre, we must, as a nation, have the kind of historical reevaluation and cultural reckoning that Germany underwent after the horrors of the Nazi regime when the nation enacted national hate crime laws and made the display of the swastika illegal.

As this year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, it is time that we honestly reckon with our troubled history of racial violence while we cast the symbols of such violence out of our public space and into our national historical memory as symbols that continue to provoke modern-day racist violence.

The first step in this process must be the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s state Capitol. A second could be to change the name of the street where the “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church sits from Calhoun Street, named for staunch slavery proponent John C. Calhoun, to Emanuel Street. A third is to initiate national teach-ins on the history of racial violence in America.

Lost cause

Although lacking a mature understanding of American history and race, Roof’s manifesto connects the past with the present by drawing upon the historical ideology of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” a Reconstruction-era ideological tradition that seeks to renew a mythological sense of the Old South’s “white nobility” while simultaneously conducting racial violence to erect the Jim Crow-era “New South.” In citing the case of Trayvon Martin as the catalyst for his murderous mission, Roof drew on the historical tradition of the “Lost Cause” as a violent response to the modern-day Black Lives Matter movement.

Three interrelated ironies of history speak to how we might, as a nation, reckon with this moment of domestic racial terrorism.

A man holds a sign at a rally against the Confederate flag in Columbia, South Carolina, on Saturday.
A man holds a sign at a rally against the Confederate flag in Columbia, South Carolina, on Saturday.

First, the day after the shooting in Charleston, the flags at the state Capitol in Columbia stood at half-staff, while the Confederate flag, maintained at the Capitol’s Civil War and Confederate memorial as part of a political “compromise,” flew at full-staff. As a symbol of this living legacy, Glenn McConnell, a former state senator and now president of the College of Charleston, insisted that the removal of the Confederate flag was analogous to “cultural genocide,” so he brokered the political “compromise” that allowed the