CHARLESTON, S.C. — The demand to bring down the Confederate flag in South Carolina and other Southern states spread like wildfire across the country in the wake of the killing of nine African-Americans in a church here by white supremacist terrorist Dylann Storm Roof June 17.
The rapidity of the shift by capitalist politicians of all stripes to call for removing the symbol of racist terror from state capitols and other public places is an expression of the impact of deepgoing changes in the working class in recent decades, especially among workers who are Caucasian. It reflects gains scored by the broad, sustained “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations against police brutality from Ferguson, Missouri; to Baltimore; to Staten Island, New York; to this city over the past year.
Five days after the assassinations and two days after thousands of people — African-Americans and Caucasians — gathered at the state Capitol in Columbia chanting, “Take it down!” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, previously a defender of the emblem, gathered Democratic and Republican leaders around her to say, “It is time to remove the flag from our Capitol grounds.” The legislature voted to take up the question when it reconvenes this month.
South Carolina congressman and former governor Mark Sanford reversed his position and commented that legislators’ phones “had just been blowing up” with calls to remove the flag. “I’ve never seen South Carolina politics move this quickly,” he said.
On June 24 Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered Confederate flags be taken down at the state Capitol. The same day the two U.S. senators from Mississippi, Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran, called for removing the stars and bars from the top corner of that state’s flag.
“I’m encouraged by the speed with which these flags are being removed from public places,” Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, said in a June 29 phone interview. “It shouldn’t have had to take nine deaths, but I’m optimistic. There’s no going back, not after that guy used that symbol for what he did.”
Broad response to assassinationsRoof, 21, went to the Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston June 17 and attended a prayer meeting, engaging in discussion with the church pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. Then he stood up and shot Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Myra Thompson, Susie Jackson, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor and Tywanza Sanders.
Sylvia Johnson, Pinckney’s cousin, told MSNBC that a survivor of the attack described Roof’s words before he started shooting: “You’ve raped our women and you are taking over our country … I have to do what I have to do.”
Roof was apprehended June 18 in Shelby, North Carolina, brought back to Charleston and charged with nine counts of murder the next day.
A website registered in Roof’s name in February contains photos of him with a Confederate flag and a long statement calling Blacks inferior, railing also against Jews and Latinos and saying why he carried out the terrorist attack. “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the Internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
In the days after the killings working people and others from Charleston and the region began making their way to the Emanuel Church to place flowers, candles and messages, to pay their respects and to show where they stood. Traffic was congested and parking scarce for blocks and the sidewalks full of individuals and families, half or more of them Caucasian, heading for the church.
Hundreds came to a church service June 18. A couple thousand, including many family members of the victims, attended a vigil in the College of Charleston’s TD Stadium June 19 where Charleston Mayor Joe Riley spoke. On Saturday, June 20, the protest in Columbia demanding removal of the Confederate flag took place. The same day more than 500 marched to the Museum of the Confederacy in Charleston chanting “Black Lives Matter.” On Sunday evening, June 21, more than 10,000 held hands across the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge here to denounce the assassinations.
There has been an outpouring at each of the funerals for the nine victims.
Changes in working classAt most of these events, while many taking part were African-American, the majority were Caucasian.
“People want their neighbors and the world to see where they stand,” Leonard Riley, a leader of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422, which has a long history of participating in the fight to bring down the Confederate flag, said by phone June 29.
This fact was noted with surprise by many in the ruling-class media and treated as something new. But it is a change that has been deepening for decades.
“I was so upset by the killings at the church,” Hazel Collins, 81, widow of a lumber mill worker, told the Militant June 20 in her kitchen in North Charleston. “And that police officer had no right to kill Walter Scott,” she added, referring to North Charleston officer Michael Slager, who shot unarmed Scott, a Black forklift driver, to death April 4 and was charged with murder after protests and the release of an eyewitness video.
“I got so mad when someone on television said all whites in the South are racist,” Patricia Austin, 66, a retired bank worker said at her doorstep in West Columbia, June 21. “It’s not true. The South has changed.”
“It should have come down a long time ago,” Thomas Parker, an electrician’s helper living in the same city, said about the Confederate flag.
“Racism is not something you’re born with,” Riley Williamson, a paralegal, said outside the Emanuel Church June 20. “I came to pay my respects.” She said the killings were shocking, “but it’s good to see so many people of all colors, shapes and sizes here.”
Discussion and debate around the Confederate flag is raging throughout the U.S. in the wake of the terror attack, and there is growing recognition of its murderous political meaning as the banner of those determined to preserve as much as they can of the consequences of the bloody counterrevolution against the gains of the Civil War and Radical Reconstruction, of Ku Klux Klan night rides, of lynchings of Black workers and farmers, of violent opposition to the gains of the movement for Black rights. (See article on page 8.)
Hundreds rallied again in Columbia June 23 calling for the flag’s removal. On June 27 Bree Newsome, 30, climbed the flagpole at the Capitol and brought the flag down. She was arrested and the flag was replaced by state authorities.
Later that day several dozen people rallied at the Capitol waving Confederate flags and calling for it to stay.
Sensing which way the wind is blowing, retail giant Walmart announced June 22 that it would stop carrying Confederate flag merchandise. Amazon, Sears and eBay followed suit. The National Parks Service announced June 25 that it would stop selling Confederate flags, T-shirts and magnets at gift stores, such as at the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Naomi Craine contributed to this article.
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