My column on the flag in The State today


Tim Dominick/The State

A New South Carolina

We have come so far. We are so close. Let’s get it done.

That’s the litany I’ve been reciting this past week, as the previously unthinkable quietly became a matter of fact — at least in the S.C. Senate. To paraphrase a T.S. Eliot quote that Sen. Tom Davis cited after the Senate vote: This is the way the Confederacy ends; not with a bang but a whimper.

We now live in a new South Carolina. No, the flag’s not down yet, but the South Carolina I’ve known all my life is gone. In that late, unlamented version, that anticlimactic 36-3 vote in the Senate would have been impossible. And yet in this new world, it was so … matter of fact. Poetry aside, there wasn’t even a whimper.

How did we get here? Well, I wasn’t around for the start. But while some scoff at the ostensible reason for putting the flag up there — to mark the centennial of The War — I find it credible. I was in the second grade in New Jersey when the centennial observances began. Navy blue kepis — the hats we identify with the Civil War — were very popular among the kids who mocked my South Carolina accent. I searched everywhere and found a gray one. I wore it to school, daring the other boys to try to knock it off.

Innocent enough. But the centennial ended in 1965, and the flag stayed up. We know why. By that time, the civil rights movement was winning important national victories.

And what did the flag mean? We know. Oh, news reports will affect that priggish, pedantic neutrality peculiar to the trade: “Some people see the flag as meaning this; some see it as meaning that.” But we know, don’t we? It is a way white South Carolinians — some of us, anyway — have had of saying that, despite Appomattox and the civil rights movement: We can do this. We don’t care about you or how you feel about it.

It was a way of telling the world whose state this is.

My own involvement with the flag started in February 1994, about six weeks after I joined The State’s editorial board. I hadn’t planned to write about it. But my colleague Lee Bandy had asked then-Gov. Carroll Campbell about the flag. The governor had dismissed the issue as beneath his notice. He was too busy with the “big picture” to fuss about with such “temporal emotions of the moment.”

Carroll Campbell did a lot of fine things as governor, but on that day he really ticked me off. So I ripped out a short editorial — just 349 words — that said if the governor was serious about national ambitions (and he was), he needed an attitude adjustment. The “emotions” to which he referred arose “from a failure to resolve the central crisis of our history. That failure arises from many causes, but one of them is a lack of leadership. The rest of the nation can be expected to have little patience with a man who seeks to lead it into the 21st century, but can’t make a gesture to lay a 19th century conflict to rest.”

From that moment, I couldn’t leave the issue alone. I berated a series of governors, and Legislatures, on this failure of leadership. And what result did I, or anyone else calling for the flag to go, get? A hardening of attitudes. The Republican Party rose to power in the General Assembly after putting a mock flag “referendum” on its 1994 primary ballot, after which legislators moved to enshrine the flying of the flag into law.

The anti-flag movement grew, and reached its zenith in 2000, with a 60,000-strong demonstration on Martin Luther King Day, and a dramatic march from Charleston to Columbia led by Mayor Joe Riley. And still, what did we get? A “compromise” that moved the flag to a more visible location. After which the Legislature made it clear for 15 years that it had zero interest in revisiting the issue.

But that all happened in the old South Carolina, which ceased to exist not the night that Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight of his flock were murdered in cold blood. It ended two days later, when the families of the slain forgave the young man charged with taking their loved ones away.

The new South Carolina was born in that moment, in that courtroom. Hatred and death didn’t bring it into being. The love of the living did.

A chain reaction of grace started there, and its radiance shone forth from Charleston. The nation marveled: Why were they not seeing another Ferguson, another Baltimore? How can this black-white lovefest be?

A series of governors had, to varying degrees, brushed off the flag. (Although both David Beasley and Jim Hodges sought compromises.) And now here was one saying, without any mention of compromises, “It’s time to move the flag from the capitol grounds.” Period. God bless Nikki Haley for actively stepping out to lead this new South Carolina, a state that would be ashamed to engage in the games of the past — a state that couldn’t look at those victims’ families and respond any other way. A state that had grown up.

Standing behind her on that miraculous day, three days after the arraignment, was a cross-section of our political leadership — black and white, Democratic and Republican. The chairmen of the two parties, whose rivalry was defined by the division that flag represented, literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder.

Things like this don’t happen in South Carolina. Or rather, they didn’t happen in the old South Carolina.

Anything can happen now. Anything. Thank God. Now, on to the House.

Mr. Warthen is the former editorial page editor of The State and now director of communications and public relations at ADCO, a Columbia marketing agency. He blogs at

7 thoughts on “My column on the flag in The State today

  1. swampbubbles

    Wow — well said. And great photo. It’s like beneath the frame they are letting you ride the white horse of I told you so. So now they give you your damn job back. Right?

  2. Bart

    Brad, great column. I am posting something as well. Not as good as yours but it is from the perspective of one who has been around for a long time and one who is a believer. My comment is based on a perspective of this one believer and it is not intended to be a sermon. As the quote goes, “it is what it is”. What anyone makes of it is up to the individual.

    I would like to share this with my friends on this blog and I mean everyone who interacts with each other on a regular basis with civility and sometimes great passion. Bud, Kathryn, Phillip, Michael Rodgers, Doug, Mark, Bryan, Scout, Harry, and so many others who are not named but still are included in the list of friends I speak of. Most of us have never met and we live in different parts of South Carolina and in other states. Some are Christians, others are not but that is not a criticism or judgment at any level either way.

    Before retiring for the night, it is my routine to read and study the Bible and teachings by some respectable biblical scholars. One in particular is J. Vernon McGee. He is no longer with us but his series, “THRU THE BIBLE”, still is and it is as honest and straight forward as anything I have ever used as a study guide. It dates back to 1983 and is a transcript from his old radio program of the same title.

    The shooting of 9 worshippers in Charleston aroused the conscience of the citizens of South Carolina and the debate over the Confederate flag flying on statehouse grounds has been the central theme of discussion since this tragic loss of life. Some are still trying to defend flying the flag on statehouse grounds while most want the flag removed to a museum where it can be viewed in its proper context.

    The key verse for my comment is from Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is the central theme of the reading from last night’s study and in the commentary from McGee; the direct transcription from his program is as follows: “In this body of believers, “there is neither Jew nor Greek.” In Christ are no racial lines. Any man in Christ is my brother, and I don’t care about the color of his skin. It is the color of his heart that interests me. There are a lot of white people walking around with black hearts, my friend, and they are not my brothers. It is only in Christ Jesus that we are made one. Thank God, I receive letters from folk of every race. The call me brother and I call them brother-because we are brothers. We are one in Christ, and we will be together throughout eternity.” Remember, this is from a radio transcript spoken well over 3 decades ago by a man whose voice was heard across America and by some of the very same people who hold bigotry and racial bias toward others with a different skin color.

    McGee also quoted Goethe in his commentary. “I have never seen a crime committed but what I too might have committed that crime.” Most legitimate ministers/preachers/teachers will use quotes and words from philosophers when appropriate to their message. All of what I have written goes to the point I will attempt to make about the flag.

    Christians, or a more appropriate description, disciples, will read and understand that in the sight of God, He sees no distinction in skin color or gender. And, we are instructed, if we are disciples or believers, to not do anything that will or could cause another brother or sister to sin or create anger or conflict between believers. The Confederate flag does just that when it comes to the body of believers, especially when we as humans see the color of our brother’s and sister’s skin and how the flag is offensive and can and will create divisions. Removal of the flag is mandatory if we are to be disciples and follow the teachings of Jesus and God’s commands regarding how we treat each other. If the flag supporters are indeed disciples, then they will have no problem supporting removal of the flag.

    The flag is not representative of Christ’s church nor is it the banner of Christ that we follow. Instead, it is an offense to the sons and daughters of their slavery bound ancestors and a constant reminder of injustices of the past and all too often, the present. It is a symbol that keeps the old wounds of slavery open and a division between us that exists well beyond the end of the Civil War. There are no viable excuses or reasons for defending the display of the flag on statehouse grounds and without passing judgment, the words of Senator Bright and his position as a board member of two religious organizations belies and is in conflict with the teachings of Christ and the Word of God. They simply are not compatible.

    When the families of the victims forgave the young man Roof, it removed the usual anger and violent reaction by radicals, black or white. It struck a chord of forgiveness and harmony not witnessed in America, not just South Carolina in a long time. Instead of reacting with anger and rioting, a state and a nation found the inner peace of what true forgiveness can produce. It gave hope and most important of all, a face of what true grace really is. The church and family members are examples of what the true meaning of “turning the other cheek” really means to a disciple.

    How will this play out over the next few weeks, months, and years? We don’t know but for one brief period in time, the world has witnessed in a very public way what it means to be a disciple by the love and kindness shown by the ones who were hurt the most. Sometimes forgiveness is the most difficult thing we can do and we look for a way to strike back and our first thoughts are for punishment. I am sure the families still struggle with anger and a desire for revenge but by their immediate display of grace by forgiving young Roof, they poured water on a potential raging fire and prevented further damage.

    And, forgiving does not release the offender from being held accountable for what he did and he must face the consequences of his actions first here on earth and if one is a disciple and believer, once again when he stands and faces Christ to answer for what he did.

    If anyone who declares they are a Christian or a disciple of Christ can defend displaying the flag after this, although I cannot judge, I can observe and conclude that they need to spend a lot of time on their knees praying for guidance and understanding of what God’s love is all about.

    I thank each one who has taken the time to read my comments and thoughts about the loss of life and the issue of the flag. It doesn’t take a person of great intellect to see how they are interconnected and how a symbol can create disharmony and discord by being a representation of something evil like racial bigotry.

    In closing, I will take the opportunity to repeat what Governor Haley has adopted as the official greeting when a state employee answers the phone, “It is a great day in South Carolina”. Let us hope and pray that it is just the beginning of many more great days in our state.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thanks, Bart. And if any of y’all just haven’t had a chance to read all of his comment, here’s the essence:

      If anyone who declares they are a Christian or a disciple of Christ can defend displaying the flag after this, although I cannot judge, I can observe and conclude that they need to spend a lot of time on their knees praying for guidance and understanding of what God’s love is all about.

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