This article was originally published for The Retiree Advocate at psara.org in August 2015.
Many of you might assume the confederate flag has been flying over the South Carolina capitol since the end of Reconstruction in the 1870’s. Here is the real story and its broader context.
In 1901, the Jackson, Missouri, Examiner newspaper announced: “The community at large need not be especially surprised if there is a Negro lynching in Independence (Missouri). The conditions are favorable at this time. There are a lot of worthless young Negro men in town who do nothing and stand around and swear…”
In 1915, Democratic President Wilson hosted the world movie premiere of “The Birth of a Nation,” a viciously racist glorification of the Ku Klux Klan saving the South from “black savages” after the Civil War.
On May 22, 1917, the front page of the Memphis, Tennessee, Commercial Appeal newspaper announced that whites would lynch Ell Persons, a black youth. Here is a description of this crime against humanity:
“Vendors were on hand to sell pop, sandwiches, and chewing gum. Women wore their best clothes to the event. Parents wrote notes to schoolteachers requesting their children be excused to witness the lynching. An estimated five thousand spectators gathered as Persons was tied to a stake in the ground, then drenched with ten gallons of gasoline and burned alive…Later that afternoon Person’s head and one of his feet were thrown from a passing car into the midst of a group of AfricanAmericans.”
What did the Governor, National Guard, Mayor, police chief, and Memphis police do? Nothing. Their inactions were crimes against humanity and pre-meditated cold-blooded murder. Where is the statue to honor Mr. Persons? Does he not deserve being remembered?
Black lives do matter, yesterday, today, and forever. No one was convicted of this gruesome murder. This type of savagery is part of the so-called great heritage that defenders of the Confederate battle flag claim to honor, although they won’t admit it.
In 1919, the NAACP published “Thirty Years of Lynching in the U.S. 1889-1918” which documented over 3,200 lynchings of African Americans. Their task was made more difficult as state and local governments had little interest in tracking brutal murders that were poorly investigated and for which virtually no one was convicted. Murder of African Americans with impunity was part and parcel of our democracy.
African Americans and their allies fought back demanding federal anti-lynching laws, as state and local governments, police, prosecutors and judges would not stop this reign of terror. In 1937 alone, 59 federal antilynching bills were introduced. All were defeated.
In 1938, after the defeat of another federal anti-lynching bill, the South Carolina State House erected the Confederate battle flag in their chamber. For 73 years or 26,000+ days after the end of the Civil War, the State House had failed to take action to “honor their Civil War dead” by putting up a battle flag. What a coincidence. No action for 73 years and the anti-lynching bill woke them up to their responsibility to honor the war dead. What a lie. In 1956, the South Carolina State Senate put the battle flag up in protest of the Supreme Court ordering school desegregation. In both cases, they were asserting their state’s right to allow lynchings to go unpunished and continue inferior segregated schools.
In 2010, Governor Nikki Haley said the flag was “not something that is racist” but rather “tradition that people feel proud of.” US Senator Lindsey Graham initially said the flag was “part of who we are.” Mr. Graham is right. That flag is part of the culture of racist communities including white collar bigots like Ms. Haley and Mr. Graham and their centuries’ long bigotry and brutality toward African Americans.
I am thrilled that the bigots have been forced to retreat and take down their hated symbol, but our work is far from over.
Governor Haley has refused to expand the Medicaid program which would provide affordable quality health care for hundreds of thousands of working poor South Carolinians. This cruel act has and will continue to have severe impacts on the African Americans there. We know that people without access to quality health care die younger and needlessly in too many cases. It is reasonable to assume that more African Americans will die each year in South Carolina from lack of affordable health care than were killed in the massacre in Charleston.
Murder by lynching is always wrong. Murder by massacre is always wrong. Is allowing people to die needlessly from lack of access to health care murder? If not, what is it?