Jim Clyburn is right.
A Confederate flag should be retired to a museum from the Summerall Chapel at The Citadel, where it has been hanging since 1939.
Clyburn, the representative from South Carolina’s 6th District and the highest ranking African American in Congress, pulled me into his fight this week. He did not discuss it with me. But he makes his case with my words from a column last week about a potential incoming cadet who wanted to wear Muslim headdress in the corps.
“Mr. Lauderdale opines that The Citadel’s purpose as a military college is to build a corps, where ‘it is not about faith ... It is not about freedom of expression or constitutional rights ... people give up themselves for something larger,’ ” Clyburn wrote this week in a letter to The State newspaper and website in Columbia.
“While reasonable people can disagree on the proper application of these sentiments to the hijab issue, I believe Mr. Lauderdale’s argument makes a compelling case that the Confederate battle flag has no place at a military college.”
The notion of cadets selecting their own dress based on personal allegiances is absurd.
“But the bigger problem is that we have become a nation with individual rights on steroids,” I wrote. “And our greatest moments as a nation, and as individuals, have always been when we give up ourselves for the person on our left and the person on our right.”
And that’s why the Confederate flag is a problem.
“That objectionable banner, which was never the official flag of the Confederacy, is a symbol of white supremacy and resistance to the rule of law,” is how Clyburn puts it.
It does not represent the full corps, or the full state. It is divisive. It is out of uniform.
Clyburn is fighting for its removal in Congress with amendments to federal spending bills. They have been unsuccessful so far, but he vows to continue despite a cool reception from the White House. President Barack Obama said he would like the flag removed, but not by that means.
The Citadel’s Board of Visitors already voted to move the flag to a museum, where it belongs. But it says it cannot do it. That’s because of the South Carolina legislature’s spiteful Heritage Act that usurps local decisions on historical monuments.
Citadel president Lt. Gen. John Rosa said: “The Citadel prides itself on the core values of duty, honor and respect, and moving the (flag) to another location is consistent with those values. But the values also require the college to follow the law.”
Somebody needs to tackle that law in a court of law.
A true corps
The Citadel voted on the flag last year after nine blacks were killed while studying the Bible a couple of miles away at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The suspect posted online pictures of himself draped in the same red Confederate battle flag, and claimed he wanted to start a race war.
Instead, he started a grace war. The grace of forgiveness flowed from the family of victims to engulf the Holy City and even the nation, if not the world. One result was a quick move by the General Assembly to remove the divisive Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds.
This month, a mural honoring those nine victims was unveiled on the side of a Charleston nonprofit arts center. It features a colorful image of the slain pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney of Ridgeland. And it includes his words:
“Across the South we have a deep appreciation of our history,” it says. “We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.”
And that’s where the corps comes into the story — whether it’s a corps of cadets giving themselves up for something greater, or a corps of South Carolinians trying to live decent lives.
We’re good at unveiling murals and portraits. But we’re not good at unveiling the truth. We can’t write each other’s histories, or live each other’s histories. But we can appreciate each other’s histories. And that means putting Confederate flags in the museum, not in each other’s faces.
If we don’t have respect for the person on our left and the person on our right, we will never know the strength of a corps.