Bigotry’s last curtain call

Published 10:04 pm Friday, June 26, 2015

One week to the day that nine worshipers were shot to death, members of the Charleston AME church met in the same room where the massacre took place to hold Bible study. Their study topic was “The Power of Love.”

The terrorist likely thought he’d set an example. He planned his crime with publicity in mind, posting a hate-filled manifesto on the Web. He must be shocked that the example that has most impressed the nation is the one set by the friends and relatives of those he murdered.

Their direct comments to him were of pain, anger and forgiveness. They showed the nation that forgiveness isn’t a single act, it’s a process, one that demonstrates a commitment to faith and spiritual maturity.

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There are transformative events from which remarkable changes flow almost immediately. This is one of them.

I was shocked to the core of my being when I heard that the murderer had spent over an hour casually talking with these kind people. There was plenty of time for his murderous impulses to ebb. He had time in that hour to get to know these people personally, but he kept his resolve to kill. His choosing the setting of a house of worship added to the horror of his calculated hate crime.

Yet, in the words of Dr. King, “If the worst in American life lurked in its dark (hearts), the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it.” The thing that galvanized the nation was seeing the people who were most justified in replying in kind to racial hatred instead reacting with forgiveness.

I have not in my lifetime witnessed as swift and purposeful a national response as occurred in the last week. People needed to find a way to reject the killer’s act. They ached to make a meaningful atonement of national guilt about such racial hatred to those whose lives were taken in Charleston, and to their loved ones.

Then, the killer’s website was discovered, including a picture of his burning the American flag, and other pictures of his taking on the persona of a warrior while holding a Confederate flag as his symbol of war on minorities.

In the immediate aftermath of the killings, there had already been calls to remove the Confederate flag that flew in front of the State House in Charleston. These requests were almost universally met with replies of legislators “having a conversation” about the flag in the future. Nationally, some (in fact, nine) of the Republican presidential candidates either sidestepped the issue or argued that the flag should stay as a symbol of “heritage.”

President Obama said the Confederate flag belonged in a museum, a phrase that Jeb Bush and Rand Paul would echo days later. Mitt Romney called for the Confederate flag to come down, and Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina soon followed with the announcement she would request the state legislature remove the flag.

There was already agreement among a majority of Democrats. When the Republicans joined, we had a national consensus and the dam broke. Mississippi’s Speaker of the House, Philip Gunn, and both U.S. senators from Mississippi called for removing the Confederate emblem from their flag.

The day following the shooting, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas was not required to print license plates with the Confederate flag. That decision in hand, in quick succession, the governors of Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina announced they’d seek an end to Confederate license plates.

Closer to home, I grew up with the symbols and substance of the Old Confederacy in my native Louisiana. So I was glad to see New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu say now is the time to talk about removing a statue of Robert E. Lee and renaming Lee Traffic Circle. In Kentucky, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said a statue of Jefferson Davis should be removed from their state house. Mind you, these are Southerners, acting on their own.

Businesses were among the first to respond to the Charleston shooting and subsequent pictures of the terrorist displaying the Confederate flag. In a single day, Amazon, eBay, Wal-Mart and Sears all announced they’d no longer sell Confederate flags or any merchandise emblazoned with the flag.

To be certain, there are thousands of good-hearted Southern citizens who regard the Confederate flag as a way to honor their relatives who fought. Many who displayed the flag in the past honestly did not mean to cause offense, pain or heartache. But the tragedy in South Carolina has forced everyone to realize the painful potency of the flag as a symbol. We can all celebrate who we are without offending or hurting others. I think of a 13-year-old boy in Texas, who wrote an article for the Texas Tribune in which he argues for changing “Confederate Heroes Day” to “Civil War Remembrance Day” as the better solution. We need symbols that unite us.