Confederate flags in South Carolina and Mississippi have garnered much of the public’s attention following the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, but they aren't the only symbols forcing politicians to judge the line between heritage, history and intimidation.
The days of the Confederate flag outside the South Carolina statehouse seem numbered following a bipartisan push, led by Republican Gov. Nikki R. Haley, earlier in the week. Attention then turned to other symbols, such as Mississippi’s state flag, which displays the Confederate symbol in its upper left corner.
Some businesses have vowed to stop selling merchandise with Confederate flags and a few states are looking to bar the image from license plates.
And while Mississippi's two Republican senators were unwavering Tuesday in their position to not take a position, Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran evolved Wednesday.
“As a proud citizen of Mississippi, it is my personal hope that the state government will consider changing the state flag," Cochran said in a statement. "The recent debate on the symbolism of our flag, which belongs to all of us, presents the people of our state an opportunity to consider a new banner that represents Mississippi. I appreciate the views of my friend and colleague Roger Wicker, and agree that we should look for unity and not divisiveness in the symbols of our state.”
It’s easy to pick on the Deep South on this issue, but just outside the capital in Northern Virginia is a vivid tapestry of memorialization to Confederate leaders: Robert E. Lee High School, Lee Jackson Memorial Highway, Lee Highway, Jefferson Davis Highway and so on.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who also served as governor of the commonwealth, noted the difference in intention; noting the flag above the South Carolina statehouse was raised in 1961 at least partially as a statement against the civil-rights movement of that era .
“That’s really the heritage that the flag is celebrating — an anti-civil rights heritage from the '60s,” Kaine said. “And I think the day has come when we’re just better than that.”
Virginia has its own complicated history with Confederate memorialization, still celebrating Lee-Jackson Day every January, although some parts of the state have opted out. For about 16 years, it was celebrated concurrently with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but it was split into two holidays in 2000.
As Virginia’s governor, Kaine opposed a Confederate heritage month, but in regards to other Confederate memorialization said, “I don’t think you can root-and-branch rewrite the history of the country, but you shouldn’t celebrate using a divisive symbol.”
Georgia has Stone Mountain, a bit of a Mt. Rushmore for Confederate heroes. It is a popular attraction, but had been a place where the Ku Klux Klan met and where lynchings were held .
Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., said symbols of the Civil War are often offensive to some groups, and when something is deemed offensive, it should be debated in the state (although he took no position on Stone Mountain). Perdue noted that in 2001, Georgia elected to change its flag, which had partially displayed the Confederate symbol.
“I wouldn’t go looking for that as a problem, but if it were, then I would be receptive to seeing that put to the people,” Perdue said. “I think states are where that needs to be done, just like it was in Georgia.”
Perdue also said he’d seen major progress on race relations in Georgia over the years and said he admired the way Charleston, S.C., had been pulling together to move in a positive direction.
“I grew up in the South, I’ve seen a lot of progress,” Perdue said. “We still have a long way to go with all of those issues. But I admire the response of that community in Charleston. … They are really trying to pull together to heal, mourn and move forward.”
And speaking of Mt. Rushmore, it too is viewed as a symbol of oppression . The faces of four U.S. icons were carved into the Black Hills, sacred to the Lakota Sioux, who were swindled out of that portion of the land by the U.S. government.
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., recognizes Mt. Rushmore has a contentious past, and said the state and Native Americans came together to honor Native American leader Crazy Horse by carving his face into the side of a mountain just a few miles away.
“One of the things that we’ve been very supportive of in South Dakota is the carving of Crazy Horse as well,” Rounds said. “You can find some ways in which you mitigate concerns and feelings like that by trying to recognize all of the great leaders out there.”
Closer to home, there's the ongoing controversy over the name of the Washington Redskins. California is looking to remove from Statuary Hall Junipero Serra, who is set to be canonized by Pope Francis but is a symbol of oppression to Native Americans. And Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is calling for moving the Jefferson Davis statue in his home state , while yards away, Mississippi's Jefferson Davis statue sits in National Statuary Hall.
While some of these are obvious, the line is often fine and tough to find.
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