- Taking Down the Flag Is Just a StartToward the Memory-Work of Racial Reconciliation in White Supremacist America
On 17 June 2015 Dylann Roof, a self-avowed white supremacist, walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and sat down for a Bible study. After spending forty-five minutes attending the service, he pulled a Glock 41 .45 caliber handgun from his backpack and opened fire, killing nine people. Roof then fled and was ultimately arrested twenty-four hours later in North Carolina. Of the nine killed the oldest was 87 year old Susie Jackson, and the youngest was 26 year old Tywanza Sanders. After his arrest Roof claimed that he assassinated the members of Emanuel AME Church in the hopes of igniting a broader race war. Indeed, photographs later emerged and went viral of Roof engaged in racist exhibitions and hate speech in the past, in particular the flying of the controversial and insensitive Confederate battle flag. In the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, we saw renewed efforts to remove Confederate symbols from across the South’s public spaces, with South Carolina legislators finally voting to remove the flag from the state capitol grounds. In addition, the nation witnessed the grace of survivors in forgiving Roof. These were meaningful and symbolic steps that, thankfully, had the opposite effect than the one the white supremacist shooter had intended.
While it is undeniably tragic that nine innocent people had to die before political leaders realized what many African Americans have known and lived with for generations, it is also indicative of a nation that whitewashes the connections between the material realities of white supremacy and its grounding in historical memory. The Confederate flag is a highly charged reminder of legacies of racism that have long been employed by racists to intimidate the black community and to oppose those struggling for racial equality. The banner of the secessionist, pro-slavery southern government had largely faded from memory and sight in the years after the Civil War, but it reappeared not coincidentally after World War II as a symbol of [End Page 9] conservative white resistance to what was then the nascent Civil Rights Movement. African Americans who famously protested segregated bussing in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 have vivid memories of being pelted with balloons filled with urine, which were thrown from cars and trucks decorated with Confederate flags. In 1959, in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, school officials in Fairfax, Virginia named and opened a new high school after Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart (Shapiro 2015). Many communities carried out similar not-so-subtle strategies of defending white supremacy under the guise of southern heritage and pride. The landscape has retained major traces of these racist symbols and, as a result of the Charleston Massacre, these symbols are being challenged well beyond the removal of the Confederate flag.
As activists and others from across the United States recognize, challenging the legitimacy of publicly displaying Confederate flags and other symbols that legitimize the defense of slavery and white supremacy is certainly the right thing to do. Yet these calls should not be mistaken for a solution to structural inequality. In particular, while state legislators from across the South should be applauded for taking down Confederate symbols, that is not the same thing as addressing the deeply entrenched social and spatial conditions that allow white supremacy to permeate not just the Charleston AME church but wider swaths of American life. This contradictory reality—addressing the symbols of a racist heritage without challenging the foundational histories and geographies of racism—raises questions about the relationship between violence, race and memory (Tyner et al. 2014). These questions are seldom discussed in our post-Charleston Nine social world.
Recently, Karen Till has argued that progressive change requires a direct engagement with the trauma of “memory work” in which “individuals and groups may confront and take responsibility for the failures of the democratic state and its violences” (Till 2012, pg. 7). In particular, she highlights the place-based practices of local citizens, activists, educators, artists, and even performers in carrying out the physical, political, and...