Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, I was taught from a young age, were the black and white martyrs whose deaths forced America to face unpleasant truths about its own society. From these blights on history we learnt that the battle for social progress, equality and compassion is hard-won and even bloody. I, for a long while, believed these assassinations meant something. Now it seems those deaths are but brush strokes on a mural that’s still being painted.
Last week, a young white gunman walked into an African-American church in South Carolina and apparently opened fire. Nine people, including a prominent state politician, were left dead. A nation and a world were left stunned. Set against the backdrop of racially complicated officer-involved shootings, and various other racially motivated murders, the events of last week are stirring a cauldron of complicated history and cries for a better future.
At the very centre of the current debate: the Confederate flag. In recently uncovered photos the suspect in the church shooting was holding the well-known former symbol of the American South. A South that went to war with the North in order to protect its right to continue enslaving black people. Understandably, this symbol from the American Civil War and its placement on Mississippi’s state flag as well as in front of South Carolina’s state capital building have for years left many people scratching their heads.
The American South has long been the punchline for jokes about the nation’s issues with race. For me, someone not from the South, the mere idea of such a complicated and unfortunate symbol emblazoned on a flag has long seemed a bit comical. Unfortunately, I never took it seriously. I don’t think many of us did. That’s the problem.
The Confederate flag debate has become a mirror for this nation, depicting a long-ignored reflection of just how cruel and unaccepting we can be of one another. Finally, many politicians are calling for the removal of the flag from public spaces. Major retailers who have merchandise depicting the flag have pulled it from shelves. Finally, it seems, we don’t see any of this as a joke.
It’s not cute. It’s not patriotic to revere something that symbolises so much hate, regardless of whether it signifies the Confederate soldiers who died fighting for what they believed.
I’ve always regarded the Civil War to be over but now it seems we’re only just begging to truly think about a détente.
Tristan McAllister is Monocle’s Transport editor.