James Bowden of Fort Mill, born in tiny Great Falls in Chester County, stood on the front row against the barrier separating the crowd from the Confederate flag flying on a pole outside the S.C. Statehouse Friday morning.
His wife, Brenda, was with him. He had arrived almost at sunrise for the 10 a.m. ceremony that would move the Confederate flag off the Statehouse grounds and into a museum. He wanted to be so close that if the flag fell one way, it might land at his feet.
Bowden stood there, 65 years old, a black man born at a time when the state said he was not equal to whites.
By those few minutes after 10 a.m., the crowd had grown from a couple hundred to several thousand. Many in the crowd were white, including the few carrying Confederate flags. Those few were opposed to the the flag’s impending demise on public property as a state-sanctioned symbol of the division of races in South Carolina.
People stood shoulder to shoulder. Some held hands and grabbed each other in the July heat, which was already 90 degrees. They held each other for the support that love and unity can bring after division separates people so long.
When one lady fainted, black and white hands helped get her to a cop and a paramedic.
Bowden was right there in front. A CNN cameraman on the steps of the Confederate Monument next to the flagpole panned Bowden’s face to the world. The face showed the world the redemption of an entire state.
A black lawyer named Carl Grant, who has fought to have the flag taken down his whole life, stood nearby and sang “We Shall Overcome.” People black and white joined in. Grant, who served in the United States Army and was a federal prosecutor under one flag – the American Flag – morphed into a song with the words “take down that flag.”
Grant’s bald head was covered in sweat, and he sang on. The crowd fought the heat, and not each other, and sang with him.
S.C. Highway Patrol honor guard moved in to start bringing the flag down. The singing stopped and the cheers started. Bowden, who was born and raised in segregation that was symbolized by that flag, and who for so long was told he was not equal to white men, took pictures of the flag dropping. He was asked how long he had waited for the moment.
“All my life,” said Bowden, softly. “This day took all my life.”
Love had won.
Love that was not heard for years – decades – until nine black people were killed last month at a Charleston church by a racist white gunman named Dylann Roof. Dylan carried that symbol of his hate.
But it was the forgiveness and love of the victims’ families – and the incredible reaction to that forgiveness by politicians and by millions of people of all races – that brought the flag down and made right the wrong of hundreds of years.
Politicians did not bring the flag down.
Love and forgiveness brought it down.
Unity and love showed right there in the shadow of the flag as it dropped. People born and raised in York, Chester and Lancaster counties all stood together to watch history unfold and to be a part of it. And to love each other.
Just a few feet away was Lyn Grist, a white man from York whose ancestors are so rooted in the land that his people fought in both the Revolutionary War and Civil War. One of his relatives died in the Civil War fighting for the Confederacy.
Grist said that the flag had to come down, that unity and love triumphed Friday.
“Nobody was ever prouder of South Carolina, and their heritage, and of these people here together than me,” Grist said. “I am proud of South Carolina today.”
Standing near Grist was Steve Love of York, who has spent the last 20 years as a local and state NAACP representative trying to get the flag down. Love’s tears mingled with the sweat in the crush of so many bodies, but the flag was not why he was emotional.
“It is the unity of all these people, black and white, young and old, who are together here today to show that the future of this state is going to be better than its past,” Love said.
Next to Love stood Walker “Trey” Thompson, a stranger until the Confederate flag’s coming down brought them together. Thompson, born in Chester, spoke about his three children growing up in a South Carolina with new possibilities and without the flag.
Thompson, 39, sent pictures to friends all over the country and told all how proud he was Friday to be from South Carolina.
Jada Hubbard of Lancaster, born in Rock Hill, was right there in the sweating crowd and proud to be a part of such a day. A black college professor from Lancaster – Garane Garane, born in Somalia – spoke about a state that someday may be without racial divisions.
There was USC alum Rhonda Dean, born in Greenville and a transplant to Steele Creek just over the North Carolina line from Fort Mill, and others. All repeated the phrase Gov. Nikki Haley said when she signed the law to drop the flag: “It’s a great day in South Carolina.”
These people, black and white, meant it Friday. It was no cheap political slogan.
There were college students there, black and white, sweating and cheering, straining to take cellphone pictures and video.
And then it was over. After decades and centuries of being a symbol of division and a reminder to blacks that they were not white was down in less time than it takes to boil water for coffee.
People stood there for a few seconds. Unsure what to do. It had taken so many years, so much hate, in the flag fight that now that it was gone the question is what to do next.
The answer was easy. Love each other.
The flag came down and all these people – strangers until Friday – hugged and realized that they had witnessed history from the front row – together.
There were no cannons. No guns. The flag was taken down forever without a single push or punch or fight.
It took no cops or Army.
What brought that flag down was the forgiveness and love of a race of people. The human race.
Bowden stood there in his state looking at the empty flagpole.
People sang: “Na na na na; na na na na. Hey hey hey; Goodbye.”
His wait was over.
A white man stood next to him.
The black man and the white man shook hands one last time, hugged, and left for the future by going their separate ways in a state where no flag on the Statehouse grounds says they are not equal.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • firstname.lastname@example.org