More and more voices across the U.S. South called for banishing the banner of the pro-slavery Confederacy on Wednesday in a fast-growing movement that adds new emotion and tensions to a year of soul-searching over race in America.
From Alabama to Mississippi, Louisiana to Tennessee and beyond, politicians distanced themselves from flags and statues memorializing southern heroes of the 1861-65 Civil War.
Alabama’s governor ordered the Confederate flag and three other flags of the Confederacy removed from the grounds of the state’s Capitol in Montgomery, a historically significant city in America’s civil rights movement where Martin Luther King Jr. led protests in the 1950s.
“This is the right thing to do,” said Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, a Republican.
Among those applauding was Jerri Haslem, 51, who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and remembers as a child being called a racial slur by a boy wearing a Confederate T-shirt.
“That symbol, the flag, is hurtful for so many people of color. If you’re not a person of color, you might not understand that,” she said. “Now, let us have a conversion with whites and others so we can heal.”
In Mississippi, Republican Senator Roger Wicker said his state’s flag, which features a Confederate battle emblem in its upper left corner, should be replaced with one that is more unifying. Republican Governor Phil Bryant, however, said he does not favor changing the flag, noting voters approved keeping it in a 2001 referendum by a 2-1 margin.
Weighing in on a debate that has swept the American South since the massacre of nine blacks in a South Carolina church last week by a suspected white gunman, Wicker said Mississippi’s flag should be put in a museum and replaced.
Suspected gunman Dylann Roof posed for numerous photos with the Confederate flag and sitting on the hood of a car with a Confederate flag on its license plates. He also derided blacks in a manifesto attributed to him.
The shooting at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has been followed quickly by a nationwide movement to eradicate symbols of the Confederacy from public spaces, license plates, retail stores and Internet sites.
“There is a new national consensus that is building with great speed,” said Donald Jones, a University of Miami constitutional law professor who specializes in civil rights. “It’s like the ice breaking. What we are witnessing is a melt.”
The debate underlines continuing divisions over a flag seen in the South as a source of pride and as a remembrance of its soldiers killed in the Civil War. Others see it as a symbol of oppression and of a dark chapter in American history that saw 11 rebelling Confederate states fight to keep blacks enslaved.
It comes a day after South Carolina’s legislature voted to debate removing the Confederate flag from its State House grounds and after leaders in Tennessee said a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard, should be removed from the State House.
“IT IS DIVISIVE”
In New Orleans, pressure is growing to remove a monument of Jefferson Davis, a slave owner who led the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
“It is divisive and you can’t ignore monuments. You can’t be indifferent to them,” said Shawn Anglim, pastor for First Grace United Methodist Church. “I believe we are in a moment and that many people are feeling it.”
Also in New Orleans, Democratic Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the removal of a 60-foot (18-meter) statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The statue towers above a major traffic circle.
School districts from California to Texas with buildings or mascots related to Confederate leaders wrestled with the issue.
Vocativ, a site that uses its technology to mine Internet data, said at least 188 public and charter schools across the country have names linked to prominent Confederates.
California state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat, urged the San Diego Unified School District to rename an elementary schools named after Lee. Anyone associated with the Confederate army, she said, is linked to intolerance and racism.
The Pentagon resisted pressure to change the names of military installations associated with Confederate generals, saying they represent “individuals not causes or ideologies.”
In Kentucky, calls were also growing to remove a Davis statue. “The Jefferson Davis statue belongs in a museum, where history is taught, rather than in the State Capitol, where laws are made,” said Kentucky state Attorney General Jack Conway.
There were also signs of pushback against moving too fast to remove the red flag that is crisscrossed by a blue “X” studded with 13 small stars, along with other Confederate symbols.
In southern Washington state, a private group flew a Confederate flag in a park devoted to honoring Davis, veterans and the Confederacy heritage in defiance of calls by a local black leader to take down a symbol of “divisiveness and hatred.”
“We are strictly a veteran heritage organization, whose mission is to honor and defend the Confederate soldiers good name, defend our heritage and present the true history of the South to future generations,” Erik Ernst of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Pacific Northwest Division wrote on Facebook.
And in Florida, one of the biggest Confederate symbols flies over a Tampa highway, described by its backers as “the world’s largest Confederate battle flag”. It ripples from a 139-foot (42-meter) poll in a “Confederate Memorial Park” run by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Tampa’s Democratic mayor, Bob Buckhorn, has called for it to come down. But the Sons of Confederate Veterans says it should remain as a reminder of those killed in the Civil War.
“There were people that disliked the Confederate battle flag before and it appears they were just looking for some opportunity to create some kind of vigilante lynch mob calling for attacks on the Confederate battle flag wherever it be located, wherever it be displayed,” said David McCallister, a Tampa-area attorney who is also commander of the local camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
On the large flag flying in Tampa, he added, “It’s not coming down.”