GOP presidential candidates and Confederate flags

The Wisconsin Gazette

When the Third Reich fell, Allied Forces immediately banned the swastika from public display. They knew that letting it remain would give Nazi sympathizers a rallying symbol and provide a measure of acceptance to the subhuman atrocities committed under Adolf Hitler.

That’s exactly the effect that the flag of the Confederate States of America had on the South. One hundred and fifty years after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union, his flag continues to fly over public buildings and monuments throughout the Bible Belt. The long-dead Confederate leaders who ripped the nation apart in their quest to continue enslaving an entire race of people continue to be honored with plaques, honorary highway signs and local holidays. 

Despite the unspeakable horrors of slavery, millions of Southerners have fabricated a revision of the Old South that’s all moonlight and magnolias. They say the Confederate flag uplifts them by honoring their unique cultural traditions and heritage. They speak as if flaunting a symbol that represents the lowest depths of hell to millions of African-Americans is no more harmful than a chicken-fried steak served with a side of grits.

Post-Civil War leaders failed to foresee the perils of ignoring the Confederate flag. It would become an emblem of the racist culture that nurtured the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society; that inspired thousands of rapes, tortures and lynchings of African-Americans; that propelled the apartheid society of Jim Crow; that institutionalized discrimination and racist violence; and that ultimately gave rise to the neo-Nazi and anti-government militia movements threatening our nation today.

To watchdog groups that track hate activity, it was shocking but not surprising when Confederate glorifier Dylann Roof walked into a Charleston, South Carolina, church and massacred three African-American men and six women attending a Bible study class. In reaction, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the Confederate flag near her state’s capitol to be removed. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on June 24 ordered a Confederate battle flag and three other symbols of the Confederacy removed from the Capitol grounds in Montgomery. Wal-Mart, eBay, and other retailers announced they were removing products with the symbol from sale.

It’s a rare moment in history when enlightenment suddenly casts so many beams, creating an opportunity for positive change. The unthinkable killings in Charleston provided just such a moment. 

It was an especially ripe moment for the Republican presidential candidates to stand up and affirm their opposition to racism. After all the political work they’ve done to eliminate civil rights laws and make it more difficult for African-Americans to vote, they could have risen and called for an end to flying the Confederate flag on public buildings — just as every Democratic candidate has.

But most of them said nothing until Haley first cleared the way. And even then, most of them attenuated their support for Haley by saying that banning the flag was not a moral imperative but rather something that each state must decide on its own.

Out of the 15 Republican candidates we tracked, only four — Jeb Bush, Paul Rand, George Pataki and Donald Trump — made and stuck with definitive calls for removal of the flags.

Many of the same GOP candidates who seemed to be competing to issue the strongest condemnation of the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of marriage equality lacked either the backbone or conviction — or both — to condemn the nation’s most enduring symbol of slavery.

It’s difficult to imagine how such a field of candidates plans to carry the electorate in 2016, when they still can’t honestly confront the issues of 1860. We already knew that the current Republican Party would take the nation backward, but until now we failed to realize how far.

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