It required nine deaths, but Gaye Christmus hopes that the “chorus of quiet voices” will finally be heard.
I stood on the State House grounds in Columbia and watched the Confederate battle flag come down.
I watched and waited with thousands of people of every age, race, and socioeconomic status – elderly people, parents with children, college students, young adults, professionals, working class men and women, and a few people who seemed to be living on the fringes of society (including the guy with the long, billowing Confederate flag that kept getting caught in tree branches.)
And I felt proud. Proud to be part of an historic event. Proud that South Carolinians have spoken and acted with love and dignity over the past few weeks. Proud that my state was on the right side of justice this time. Proud that, for once, the dozens of TV trucks lining the streets would be reporting something positive about South Carolina.
But later I felt dismayed and embarrassed by my pride. Because, let’s be honest, the only reason thousands of people converged on the State House grounds yesterday, the only reason the national media swooped in and set up shop, and the only reason my state was doing the right thing this time around, is because nine people died in Charleston on June 17. Nine upstanding people, model citizens, Christian men and women who were attending an evening Bible study, died because they were African American. And finally, South Carolina sat up and took notice.
The Confederate battle flag has flown, either atop the State House or on the grounds, since 1961. Depending on who you ask, it was either raised to commemorate the beginning of the Civil War or to protest the growing Civil Rights movement. Whatever the original reason, in recent decades it has become the center of a battle between those who believe it represents slavery and oppression and those who believe it represents their Southern heritage. And for many decades, the Southern heritage crowd won.
How did we let that happen? Why did we allow the “right” of one group to honor its heritage trump the right of another group to live free of a government-sanctioned symbol of oppression? How did a state that prides itself on its Christian past and present stray so far from the teachings of Jesus, who never focused on “rights” but instead taught his followers to love people and seek justice.
The answers to those questions are tied up so tightly in our history and politics that I’m not sure we can ever untangle them. I’m not even tempted to try. But perhaps we can do some things differently going forward. Like taking time to consider the thoughts and feelings of others, even those that differ greatly from our own. And thinking about what it would be like to walk in their shoes. Or examining some of our tightly-held beliefs, which seem sacrosanct to us but may, in fact, be partly or completely wrong. Or even stepping out and taking action to try to right a wrong.
The loud voices in our society – the media, social media, and political pundits – won’t encourage us to make these changes. Those voices thrive on conflict and anger, on shouting people down and moving on to the next fight. But perhaps we can be the chorus of soft voices that speak a different language – a language of wanting to listen and understand and move forward – and by speaking as a chorus can become one of the loud voices.
Although I felt proud yesterday, I feel sad today. I’ve known for a long time that the Confederate battle flag needed to go, but I didn’t do anything to make it happen. I didn’t pay close enough attention to what the flag meant to other people. I thought we could ignore it and maybe it would go away. But we couldn’t, and it didn’t. Going forward, I hope that I and other South Carolinians and other Americans will begin speaking with the chorus of soft voices. So that we all can feel proud again.