In the days since 9 members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina were brutally murdered by white supremacist Dylan Roof, many of us have been overwhelmed with feelings of grief, anger, and frustration. After the shooting, several of us at Seven Scribes shared our reactions in a series of Letters After Charleston. Now, we share some responses from our readers, in the hopes that Seven Scribes can be a place for community conversation and healing.[hr style=”line” size=”1px”]
When the last Confederate flag is pulled down from its lofty perch atop a Southern capitol building, the Emanuel 9 will not rise from the dead. We know this. Yet, the call for the removal of the Confederate flag has dominated the reaction to the June 17, 2015, massacre of the nine Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church members. Americans have since engaged in debates around whether the flag represents the hatred of alleged killer Dylan Roof or genteel Southern heritage.
And none of it actually matters.
The clamor to take down the Confederate flag across the South has little to do with the Emanuel 9. It is rather a reactionary move to assuage the national conscience. I pondered the sudden push to re-evaluate the flag’s meaning. Surely, I thought, the flag meant the same the day before the attacks as it did the day afterward.
On October 14, 2014, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley indicated in a gubernatorial debate that she did not believe the Confederate flag should stop flying—business owners weren’t offended by it. Apparently commerce was her rubric for racism. As is her right, Governor Haley changed her mind after the shooting at Mother Emanuel. She was the first public official on June 22 to call for its removal. A stampede of politicians have followed her lead, as well as businesses like Walmart, Target, Etsy, Amazon, and Apple.
All this jockeying to be right happened because it is politically expedient. Officials cannot in good conscience find a defense for flying a flag associated with the suspect of a massacre. The reactive move for change is nothing new. In fact, the reactions to the Emanuel 9 tragedy mirror the history of Black martyrdom spurring White American justice.
White people have historically demanded our blood for their patronage. tweet
In large part, the Civil Rights Movement consisted of Black activists pushing for legislation to combat the legal arms of White supremacy in the United States. But it also consisted of Black people giving their bodies to be broken, burned, and bruised, in public, striking the conscience of White people to move the cause of freedom. Justice required martyrdom. Racism thrived in the dark, under cover of secrecy. White people could ignore racism as long as they did not have to see its gore on television. They could stall attempts at integration, telling Black people it was too soon. But we do not easily forget iconic images of dogs attacking marchers, of the tear-gassed body of Amelia Boynton Robinson, of fire hoses aimed to extinguish people.
It is in this context that I see the feverish race to remove the Confederate flag from high and holy places in the South. The flag should have been taken down years ago. Black people have long made known our fear and distaste for symbols of the Confederacy. But our voices, plaintive or angry, have never been enough. White people have historically demanded our blood for their patronage.
Perhaps what is most grievous about this pattern of reactionary redress is the fear that White Americans will never willingly fulfill America’s promise of “justice for all.” Too many White Americans must see their own violence enacted on Black bodies before they believe inequity. And Black people must die by 1,000 cuts until one death blow awakens the national White conscience. This is how justice has always been handed down to Black folk in the US: slowly, painstakingly, tardily, and with the smug self-congratulations of White people who think they are doing Black people a favor by giving us a fraction of restorative justice. And it will ever be so, as long as we look to them in supplication.
Even if another state never flies the Confederate flag, the change the Emanuel 9 posthumously wrought will never equal the value of their beautiful Black lives. We must work, with everything we are, for an America where we no longer must exchange martyrdom for cheap change.