In light of the racially motivated massacre that killed nine people in a historic African-American church last week, thousands have marched on the Statehouse in recent days to demand the Confederate battle flag be taken down from its prominent position in front of the state Capitol.
They and others around the nation denounced the flag as a hateful symbol of a racist past embraced by the Charleston shooter and other white supremacists. On Monday, the state’s governor, both U.S. senators and other state leaders essentially agreed, calling for the flag to come down from its place beside a Confederate war memorial at Main and Gervais streets in Columbia.
But to others, the flag remains a potent symbol of their Southern identity, an inheritance from ancestors who fought and died for their state.
Mike Short of Fort Mill is the state chaplain for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group for direct descendants of those who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. The group displays the battle flag as a way to remember their sacrifice.
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“The flag has been compromised by hate groups,” Short said. “We’re not a hate group, and anyone who belongs to a hate group cannot be part of the SCV.”
Like almost everyone, Short was horrified by last week’s shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and says the focus now needs to be on supporting the families of those affected by the tragedy.
“The people of Charleston and South Carolina have shown their true heart through all this, and the SCV supports them,” Short said. “It’s not proper to tie this issue to that.”
Randall Burbage is past commander of the South Carolina division of the SCV and current commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, the division of the national organization that represents members from South Carolina to New York. He hopes the Legislature will put off taking any action until the situation calms down.
“It’s too sensitive to make any decision this week,” he said. “We want them to be thinking clearly, not emotionally.”
The Confederate battle flag at the Statehouse, which Burbage stressed is part of a war memorial, should remain where it is to honor the “23,000 men who didn’t return” home after the Civil War.
“We strongly condemn the actions of this young man,” Burbage said of the shooter. “But I put the blame on his parents and those he associated with.”
Short, who once served as chairman of the York County Council, says the news media has allowed the flag to overshadow the killings in Charleston. He says politicians are overreacting to criticism of the flag.
“I understand knee-jerk reactions in politics,” he said. “We need to move away from that.”
Short says those protesting the flag should try to understand the sacrifice of his ancestors who “stood and fought when they were called upon by their state.”
“If anyone told you the war wasn’t about slavery, they’re lying, but if anyone tells you the war was only about slavery, they’re lying,” he said. “When you have people from out of the state calling everybody in the South dumb racists and hatemongers, that just fuels divisiveness.
“If I thought for a minute that taking the flag down would eliminate hatred and bigotry, I would tear it down myself. But that won’t happen.”
Burbage agrees the flag has been “hijacked and misused” by hate groups, but “for 100 years before, this was an honored symbol.”
He calls efforts to remove the flag part of a “cultural genocide” against the South.
“There’s a drive to eliminate everything Confederate,” he said, “including street and building names.”
While Burbage opposes taking the Confederate battle flag down, he said the SCV could get behind an effort by state Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, to pass a hate crimes bill in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting.
“Nobody in the organization would oppose that,” he said. “A hate crime could happen to any race at any time.”
For his part, Short would prefer to keep the focus on the people most affected by last week’s attack.
“Keep the folks in Charleston in your prayers, those who lost their lives in this vicious, stupid act,” he said. “We’ve shown the nation and the world just how gracious and forgiving we can be.”
Bristow Marchant • 803-329-4062