Flag down, but history of racism still looms over S.C.
It was early one morning last week when a woman found the first flier on her car in the predominantly black North Charleston, South Carolina community of Dorchester Waylyn.
The woman had seen trucks passing through the neighborhood in the days before with white passengers holding Confederate flags. She contacted the neighborhood association for help.
The fliers depict a drawing of a man wearing a white robe and hood, the contact information for the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and the words, “Neighborhood Watch: You can sleep tonight knowing the Klan is awake!”
“I didn’t know how to react,” said Jessie Williams, president of the neighborhood association.
Williams, who is Hawaiian, said people in Dorchester Waylyn are putting their own fliers in their windows saying the community stands together against racism.
Williams emphasized that the community is not frightened by the KKK fliers, but they have reported them to police.
A community meeting is planned for Wednesday night to spread a message of solidarity and to warn people about potential Klan activity.
“We’re for unity and bringing people together and coming together as a multicultural community,” he said, “whereas the KKK likely is not.”
Frank Ancona, Imperial Wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, said Wednesday that his group is not responsible for distributing the fliers.
“I can assure you they were not distributed by our members…I have no way of knowing who did that,” he said, adding that the fliers are available for anyone to download on the organization’s website.
The Traditionalist American Knights are based in Missouri, and Ancona said they do not recruit outside the area where they operate. He also said they do not waste their time and energy distributing materials in black neighborhoods where they know they will not gain members.
His organization disapproves of the alleged actions of Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white man accused of killing nine black people in a Charleston church last month.
“We think the guy was a depraved individual, and if he’s found guilty he deserves the death penalty,” Ancona said.
Another KKK organization, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, based in Pelham, North Carolina, is planning a rally at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia on Saturday, according to the Post and Courier.
The increased visibility of the KKK and racist groups in the wake of the removal of the Confederate battle flag, which Roof had been pictured online holding, from the grounds of the Statehouse is somewhat predictable, experts say.
“The very definition of a reactionary is that they’re going to react,” said Dr. Joshua Inwood, associate professor of geography and Africana studies at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
“There certainly has been a lot of rage generated in the white supremacist world with the attacks on the Confederate battle flag,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
However, Potok said the recruitment efforts and rallies are more a result of a desire for publicity than a genuine push for new members.
“They’re making hay while the sun shines,” he said.
As communities in other states debate the flag and other Confederate symbols in the coming months, Potok predicted there will be more demonstrations and more displays of anger.
“This too shall pass,” said Potok. “We can’t stop the Klan from doing what they’re doing…This is not a sign of the strength of the Klan today, but rather of its weakness.”
Inwood said supporters of the flag will probably be angry about its removal for a long time, but it remains unclear whether the state’s leaders will see any political backlash for it.
According to Robert Chase, PhD, a history professor at Stony Brook University and former public historian at the College of Charleston, the support of those leaders from both parties is one of the facts that distinguishes the recent debate over the flag from previous arguments. This time, people on both sides were voting to take down the flag and denouncing racial violence.
Dr. JeffriAnne Wilder, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Florida, said a rise in racist rhetoric following the flag’s removal is not necessarily surprising, but the widespread outpouring of support for the victims of the Charleston church shooting was.
Wilder agreed that taking down the flag had a significance that went beyond the symbolic, but it is only the beginning of the conversation.
“One single act cannot erase the 100-plus years of issues” the U.S. has struggled with involving race, she said, but “it’s a starting point, and I think it may be a tipping point.”
For a struggle that has already gone on since the abolition of slavery, nobody expects racism to go away just because one flag was taken down.
Chase said it is reasonable for black communities to continue to be unsettled by the presence of the Klan and extremist Confederate flag supporters.
“One thing the Confederate flag has always symbolized has been white vigilante violence.”
The South, according to Chase, “has always used the symbols of the past to construct its new future,” so the symbolism of taking down the flag does matter.
“We need to follow these symbolic acts up with actual policies” that address issues of mass incarceration, abusive policy and economic inequality in black communities, Chase said.
The events in South Carolina, both the Charleston church shooting and the removal of the flag, occurred in the context of other recent events that have called attention to racism in modern American society and the value placed on black lives.
“I think there’s a longer historical context here and a more immediate struggle,” Chase said.
The battle over the flag and the view that it is a symbol of slavery, disenfranchisement, violence, and the denial of civil rights has been going on for decades, according to Chase, and the issue of race in public history and memory has persisted since the end of the Civil War.
South Carolina State Rep. Jenny Horne, a descendant of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, gave an emotional speech advocating the removal of the flag during the debate on the issue in the state legislature last week.
“It portends a wider unity of people, both black and white, who maybe can reckon with this history,” Chase said.
Wilder said the Charleston church shooting played out in the context of a black community that had already risen up over issues like the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray.
For her, the church shooting stands out from those other events because it was a blatant act with what authorities say was an unambiguously racist motive of trying to start a race war.
“The Charleston shooting was very, very different from anything we’ve seen in our lifetime…Charleston really woke some people up,” she said.
Chase said the removal of the flag may not have been possible without the Black Lives Matter movement, which was reaching a fever pitch in Charleston before the church shooting.
“It’s raised African-American voices to a space where they can be heard,” he said.
While the experts are hesitant to give the spotlight to racist groups that are already somewhat marginalized, they see a bigger risk in ignoring them.
Dylann Roof was able to fly under the radar precisely because his rhetoric was not in the public eye, Inwood said.
One of the benefits of the national debate over Confederate symbols, according to him, is that it draws extremists out and enables the more moderate majority to unite and reject their hateful ideologies.
There is a value in having that conversation, he said, but it is not likely to impact underlying issues of racism in society.
“I think the most productive way to deal with it is to not ignore it, not dismiss it,” Wilder said, and instead have a discussion about how bad these organizations are and try to unite people against them.
“We can’t do anything about our history, but it’s not good to ignore it either.”
While he agreed that the battle flag at the Statehouse should have come down, Chase said erasing all memorials and symbols of the Confederacy from public memory would be a missed opportunity for education. The issue for him lies in the way many of them are currently presented.
“The problem is that they’re valorized, and they’re held up aloft as heroic achievements,” he said, when instead they could provide a chance to reexamine and reassess the history that surrounds them and that led to their creation.
“We’re too quick to forget that story of the Jim Crow South,” Chase said.
It seems one unintended consequence of Dylann Roof’s alleged crimes may be driving the South Carolina community to remember that history of racism and violence, to confront it, and possibly to finally overcome it.
“I think the underlying tragedy is that it took nine people dying in Charleston for us to finally start that conversation,” Inwood said.