Following last week’s shooting in Charleston, South Carolina that saw the massacre of nine African Americans in the historic Emanuel AME Church, allegedly committed by a man with white supremacist views, there was an outcry to tear down the Confederate flag from American life.
In rapid succession, government and corporate leaders have heeded to that cry.
On Tuesday, major retailers including Walmart, Amazon, eBay, Sears, and Etsy pledged they would stop selling merchandise bearing the symbol - also known as the Battle flag of Northern Virginia first sewn during the Civil War. At the state level, South Carolina legislators introduced a bill Tuesday that would ban the flag, which currently flies in front of the Statehouse in Columbia, from being flown on government grounds. Virginia is ordering license plates featuring the flag be phased out. In Alabama, Governor Robert Bentley today ordered the flag be removed from the state capitol.
For some people in the Deep South, the Stars and Bars have long been a symbol of pride for their region, a cause their ancestors fought for, and an emblem of their heritage. For decades as well, there have been demands to remove the symbol - historically representing Southern states’ desire for maintaining slavery - from American culture.
If the speed of government and corporate action against the flag this week seems unprecedented in modern history, it does harken back to other catalysts in American political and cultural history. Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley says the 1859 hanging of white abolitionist John Brown helped spur the Civil War and end slavery. Brinkley also notes how in the 1960s and 70s, Walter Cronkite's reporting turned public opinion against the Vietnam War. Allan Lichtman, professor of history at American University, lists other analogous events: the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory altering the workers' rights movement; the publishing of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" helping lay the groundwork for the Civil War; Edward R. Murrow's reporting on McCarthyism during the 1950s; and Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" sparking modern-day feminism.
Lichtman contrasts these tumultuous changes in the collective consciousness with the slow drumbeat against climate change that has failed to provoke rapid action and the step-by-step tweaks of perceptions and acceptance of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) Americans.
What other symbols have been generally accepted (or at least tolerated) for a long period before becoming the subject of controversy because of a single catalyst? What kind of a precedent, if any, does this set for other symbols that are seen as controversial?
Allan Lichtman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University