Everybody thinks the flag’s an issue
except those who can act on it
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
‘I JUST WANTED to touch base with you and let you know I enjoyed your editorials this morning,” said the phone message. “You don’t have to call me back, but read ’em and thought you did a great job. Thanks.”
Pretty routine, except that it was from a Republican S.C. House member, Ted Pitts — my own representative, as it happens — and the column and editorial were asserting the need to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.
Assuming this wasn’t just constituent service, I called to ask why he liked them. He was a little vague, saying “it’s a very interesting issue” with “an interesting dynamic,” but not taking a position.
I think he was feeling a little odd because after he had called me, he had found that he was about the only person in the State House who wanted to talk about the subject at all.
“I just walked around and said, ‘Are we gonna talk about this?’ and to a man, there was just no interest,” he said. “There just seemed to be no appetite around here, from African-American members” or anyone else.
“They don’t think it’s an issue right now.”
But apathy has always been the Legislature’s way on the flag issue. Contrary to popular impression, it did not spend the 1990s (before Mr. Pitts was elected) discussing the issue — everyone else did. The apathy was even apparent during the all-too-brief debate in 2000 that left the flag in our faces, although it was removed from its position of false sovereignty.
If the House hadn’t been in such an all-fired hurry, lawmakers could have dealt with the issue once and for all. A lot of people from all over the political spectrum were pushing them to get something done, and some of the main advocates — such as the S.C. Chamber of Commerce — believed that the put-it-behind-the-monument approach qualified as “something.”
So they did that, quickly. If the House had discussed the issue more than one day, a proposal to strike the flag for good might have had a chance, but the leadership wasn’t willing.
If you ask lawmakers about the flag, they’re aghast: Why ask them, of all people? Yet thanks to a law passed by the Legislature in 1995 (in response to an abortive attempt by then-Gov. David Beasley to exercise some leadership), only the Legislature can do anything with the flag. But they don’t even think it’s an issue.
USC football coach Steve Spurrier thinks it’s an issue, but what does he know? All he knows is that the flag should not be there, and that it projects an absurdly and unnecessarily negative image of our state to the entire world.
I heard from other people who don’t know any more than the old ball coach.
“I am one million percent behind you on the flag issue…. We should not be putting down anybody, just like your column says, we should just be doing it because it’s the right thing to do. I’m born, bred South Carolina, go back generations … but I could care less. I do miss ‘Dixie,’ now, it did make my skin crawl, but the flag doesn’t mean a damn’ thing… I think you’ll be surprised at the momentum can get going now. Good job.”
As for e-mails, there was a problem: The special email@example.com address I had set up malfunctioned for the first two days. But during that time, 39 people were determined enough to look up my personal address. Thirty were for taking the flag down; only nine seemed opposed to our message in any way — and a couple of those were fairly indirect in saying so. Not all, of course, were so shy:
“You know as well as I that this is not about the Confederate flag, it is about blacks — period! If removing that flag from the Statehouse grounds would cure the 70+% illegitimacy rate, children having children, the over 50% dropout rate and the substantial crime and incarceration rate within the black community, I would say remove it now but it will not and you and Spurrier know it!… You are simply using the flag issue as a diversion from the real issues I mentioned above.”
More typical is this one:
“I grew up in this state and I am proud to be from here, but I am embarrassed by that flag and the people who support it. I travel all over the country for my work and every time someone asks me where I am from and I say SC, they bring up the flag. I have to defend myself and my state by saying not all of us are backwards and ignorant…. It is an insult to the troops fighting for our freedom today…. I will say it as plainly as I can: It is un-American to support the flag and what it stands for.”
As of midday Friday, my blog had received 253 comments on the subject since Mr. Spurrier’s remarks. Few were vague.
Rep. Pitts remains sort of, kind of uncommitted. “I feel kind of like an outsider looking in on this,” he said — which sounded odd for one of the 170 insiders who have the power to act on the issue. He explained: “It’s an issue that means very little to me — and, I think, to my generation.” Mr. Pitts is 35.
“Our state shouldn’t promote anything that offends a large block of its people,” Mr. Pitts said, in his strongest statement one way or the other. “In 2007, we’ve got a lot of other issues to talk about, but why can’t we talk about this?”
“It’s almost like we’re hiding from the issue.” I would have added that it’s exactly like it, but he was on a roll. “Let’s defend why it’s still flying there” if lawmakers believe it’s justified.
“But let’s not just not talk about it.”
If you’d like to let Mr. Pitts know that it’s an issue to you, let him know. Or better, let your own representatives know.
Find out how to reach your representatives here and your senators here. If you don’t know who represents you, check here.