Anyone shocked that the Confederate flag still flies from public buildings in many parts of the US South is right to be.
The murder on 17 June of nine black church-goers in South Carolina by a white supremacist who had posed with the flag has pushed some right-wing Southern politicians to express sympathy for its removal. Before that, however, many of the same people were defending it as a symbol of Southern heritage.
Many will not retreat even now: prominent Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have refused to call for the flag to come down, obviously because they do not want to alienate racist voters.
Claims that the “stars and bars” represents some sort of non-political Southern heritage are surreal. This was the flag of the slaveholders’ rebellion in the 1860s, as they sparked a civil war which killed 600,000 in order to defend their right to own black people as property.
It was the flag of the white supremacist counter-revolution which brutally denied the ex-slaves political freedom in order to ensure cheap labour from the 1870s. It was the flag brandished by those resisting civil rights and terrorising those fighting for them in the 1960s — when, bizarrely, its use as a public emblem became more widespread.
Defence of the Confederate flag is typical of the equation of “Southern” with “white racist”. Black Southerners, in particular, are read out, as are whites who oppose racism. Even the American Civil War was not really North versus South: forty per cent of the Confederacy’s population were slaves and together with whites, mainly poor, who opposed the slave-owners’ rebellion they made up the majority of Southerners who helped crush it.
The legacy of slavery and segregation is alive and powerful in the US today. Removing the Confederate flag from public buildings will not solve those deeply entrenched problems of racism and inequality.
It is nonetheless a symbolic step in the right direction, and the Americans fighting for it deserve complete solidarity.
• A black woman and a white man, Bree Newsome and Jimmy Tyson, face up to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine for taking part in an action in which they took down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol. You can support the campaign for the dropping of charges against them here.