“It is time to move the flag from the capitol grounds.” With those words, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley captured the new understanding that came after the brutal murders of nine church members in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Over the weekend, I attended the emotionally draining funerals held for the slain. The governor attended each, receiving thanks for her commitment.
The blood of martyrs often changes the way we see. That was true after Emmett Till’s mutilated 14-year-old body was displayed in an open casket in 1955. It was true in 1963, after the four little girls were blown up in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. It was true after Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. In South Carolina, the “amazing grace” of the relatives of the victims, directly offering the murderer forgiveness opened the way. The governor’s declaration on the flag took the first step. Now states and companies across the South are taking down the Confederate flags and putting them — so long a symbol of hate — into the museums where it belongs.
Removing the flag is long overdue. But for the crucifixion to turn into a resurrection will require removing the flag agenda, not just the flag, addressing the substance, not just the symbol. South Carolina — like many states of the old Confederacy — has refused to accept federal money to expand Medicaid. This deprives at least 160,000 lower-income workers of affordable health care, and costs an estimated 200 lives a year. It deprives the state of $12 billion in federal money from 2014 to 2020. That costs the state’s hospitals and medical facilities dearly. South Carolina could use this moment to accept the money and aid its workers, disproportionately people of color.
South Carolina is one of the states — aligning once more with many in the old Confederacy — to pass measures restricting the right to vote, particularly an onerous voter ID law, challenged by the NAACP and others as racially discriminatory. The state could express the consciousness by repealing this law.
South Carolina State University, the historically black college in Orangeburg, is imperiled. It remains open, still accredited but on probation due to its financial difficulties. The state has changed its leadership. Now is the time for the state to act boldly to rescue the only historically black college in the state.
As President Obama stated in his memorial address, we’ve had enough talk about race. Now is time for action. Action that will turn this act of terror into an era of new hope, this expression of the Old South into a reaffirmation of the New South, this crucifixion into a resurrection.
Action now is essential for the old forces of hate and division still exist. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that five predominantly black churches have caught fire over the past week, four in the South and one in Ohio, apparent targets of arsonists. Only continued action to bring us together can insure that we overcome those who would use terror and fear to drive us apart.
Gov. Haley has shown the way. She didn’t wait for opinion polls. She didn’t put her finger into the wind to see which way it was blowing. She worried about her state, asking “How are we ever going to pull this back together.” And so she acted on the flag, starting a movement that is sweeping the South. Now the governor might show the way once more. Moving to pull the state together by acting on the substance of divisions as well as the symbols. The blood of the martyrs has once more forced us to look anew. Now is the time to act boldly to express this new consciousness.
Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH.