Beware the symbols of belonging that mean exclusion and hate

Quick quiz: what does this flag represent?


It’s the state flag of South Carolina. Why does that matter?

Because this isn’t.

How powerful are our symbols of belonging.

Why was it so hard to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse in Charleston?

It’s not even the South Carolina flag.

But the dogged devotion to ‘Confederate pride’ meant that belonging to past associations overtook a century and a half of history and emancipation. And ignored the symbolism of the flag brandished online by the accused killer, after the massacre in Charleston of nine African-Americans churchgoers.

Much is revealed about how attached we can be to the symbols of belonging in the commentary from inside the debate of South Carolina State Representatives, in this article – revealing the extent of Republican filibustering. Michael A. Pitts introduced more than 60 doomed amendments that stalled the vote for nearly 15 hours.

Jenny Horne, a petite blonde Republican – a descendant of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate States of America’s President during the Civil War – called time. She poured shame on the debate for lacking the “heart” to respond to the massacre.

“I have heard enough about heritage.
Well I am a descendant of Jefferson Davis, OK? But that doesn’t matter. Because it’s not about Jenny Horne!”

The debate still went on.

Yet more fuddling with amendments.

Till Representative Joseph Neal, an elder statesman of the caucus, an African American and a close friend of Senator Pinckney, one of those murdered (and, like him, also a pastor), expressed his weariness: “I sat and I listened, all day long with great interest, and empathy, for what was said. I understand you loving and supporting your ‘heritage.’ But ‘grace’ means that you ought to also love and support mine. It’s not a one-way street. My heritage is based on a group of people who were brought here in chains. Who were denigrated. Demagogued. Lynched and killed. Denied the right to vote. Denied the right to even have a family.”

He summed up the divisiveness of the flag – a symbol against those who are deemed NOT to belong as much as for those who do. “That flag that stands outside has stood as a thumb in the eye of those families in Charleston who lost loved ones, and we all know it. And the response that this body should give is a moment of grace to those families. Not just grace to the Confederate dead, but grace to those who are suffering right now, who’re still alive.”

Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, called it out, no-nonsense:“If you’re not trying to stall, then what’s the problem?”

It took 15 hours to agree, by 94 votes to 20 – to lower a flag that had originally been raised in conflict against the United States. In Charleston Bay, April 1861.

The Confederate flag was finally folded away. A longstanding symbol of ‘Southern pride’, along with exclusion and hate. But the conflict of division and belonging still flies in plain sight.

It’s 150 years since the Civil War ended. Jefferson Davis was captured May 1865. Though the message took a while to get through. Apart from the final drama of the ship CSS Shenandoah, accounts say the last shot was fired on 22 June 1865. The massacre in Charleston was 17 June 2015.

Heritage, and the symbols we choose to hang on to, can guide behaviour even more than statute.

The USA’s noble motto is a heck of a belonging challenge.

E pluribus unum ‘Out of the many we are one’

South Carolina had better give some real meaning to its own flag. Or commission a new one.

It’s time to nurture a shared sense of belonging.

Creating a sense of Belonging sounds simple but the challenges can be complex. We help make it easy.