When the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse Friday morning, Gov. Nikki Haley spoke solemnly of the nine black churchgoers who were shot to death less than a month ago at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“We have all been struck by what was a tragedy we didn't think we would ever encounter,” Haley said of the horrifying massacre before she signed the bill with nine pens that will go to the families of the victims. “Nine amazing people that forever changed South Carolina's history."
Haley also referenced the “grace” shown by the nine families when they forgave the white gunman. She said their grace helped usher the state toward this long overdue decision. The assassinations at Emanuel AME, followed by forgiveness from the grieving families, were similarly cited by several South Carolina lawmakers as their reason for voting to remove the flag. Black Deaths Matter. That’s the painful and dangerous narrative being developed out of South Carolina. Only Black Deaths Matter. Our nation is capable of doing the right thing – such as taking down the Confederate flag in the year 2015, a flag that represents the racist, immoral, unconstitutional defense of slavery and Jim Crow – but only when black deaths happen and are met by a response deemed acceptable. Ever since this flag was raised in 1961 to send the message that South Carolina would not honor equal protection under the law, tens of thousands of small and large protests have not been enough to move the power brokers to take it down.
In 1968, in Orangeburg, S.C., a highway patrolman shot and killed black college students protesting racial segregation at a bowling alley. No one has ever been charged with those murders. But even this was was not enough to bring the flag down.
For 15 years the NAACP has boycotted South Carolina, but that wasn't enough. In fact for several years, my good friend and brother Dr. Lonnie Randolph, allowed me to stand with him and NAACPers to raise a prophetic message at the South Carolina capitol in front of that flag, exhorting one and all, even God in heaven, to take it down. My church denomination, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) a predominantly white progressive body committed to and antiracist theology, honored the boycott. So I joined them in the cautious yet joyful feelings as the flag came down. It is a good thing. But when we look at the voting and policy records of most of the political leaders who helped to lower it, we should be careful with equating its removal as a history-altering event. Systemic racism is alive and well; some leaders show no intention yet of dealing with the fundamental inequalities racism still causes in our society.
The power of racism has a strange endurance. This history of refusing to bring down the flag for years — and after the Orangeburg massacre — implies that black deaths alone are not enough to bring change. According to what some politicians and media commentators have implied, knowingly or unknowingly: Only if black deaths are caused by someone who had posed for photos of himself surrounded by racist paraphernalia, and only if the deaths are accompanied by acceptable black love and forgiveness, then they might matter. Then they pass the racist paternalistic standard and tone test. Clearly without these deaths, there never would have been a debate about the flag. And herein lies a painful reality: Extreme black death must precede mediocre symbolic steps against past and present racism.
We need serious pastoral counseling if we do not see it is ungodly to think that a reciprocal "grace" response to nine black deaths is the removal of a flag. Much has been said about the families’ forgiveness, but in the theological and nonviolent tradition the Moral Mondays Movement I am a part of, such forgiveness should not be misinterpreted as a dismissal of the greater evil. Let us be clear about what's being said: Nine Black deaths will not get you one pen to sign Medicaid expansion throughout the South, which saves black lives. Black deaths will not get full voting rights, which saves black political power and lives. It will not get criminal justice reform, which liberates black lives. Nor will it get you full funding for public education, a living wage, or economic empowerment that will lift the lives of black people, minorities, and the poor. It will not get gun reform. Black deaths only get you the lowering of a low-down flag that should have never been up. It will get you nine pens as memorabilia and a signing ceremony at the Capitol. It will get you one final insult in the promise that an undignified flag, a symbol of hate, will be lowered “with dignity and respect.” And you will get this only if black deaths occur, and the victims’ families and extended family in the human race behave in a manner declared acceptable and ‘Christian’ by people who have supported un-Christian, immoral public policy that continues to institutionalize economic, racial, and political inequality.
We cannot allow this narrative to stand unchallenged. If we do, we are complicit in the furtherance of a chilling truth that black lives don’t matter — only black deaths. I cannot help but remember in the movie Glory, when black soldiers had to march to certain death in order for white Union soldiers, their comrades, to salute them! I cannot help but remember how four black girls had to be blown up at 16th Street Baptist Church in order to get certain people to consider that racism and Alabama Gov. George Wallace had gone too far. Medger Evers, James Earl Chaney, Jimmy Jackson, and scores of other black warriors, along with Andrew Goodman, Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb, and Michael Schwerner — white, but with black liberation in their hearts — had to die to get real action on voting rights legislation to enforce what was already our right from the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. At least, in these cases, the movement set the benchmarks for the policy changes we wanted. Now staunch adversaries of civil rights are being allowed to set the benchmarks for what they will give in response to black deaths – that is, IF they approve of how we express our sorrow and grief. While we have photo ops around their efforts to remove the flag in South Carolina, their counterparts in Congress try to raise it on the property of the United States of America. To some of them, black lives, black emotions, black history, and black pain don't matter. Human beings, deeply hurt by death, are the only creatures who don't have to respond with death.
But we must refuse to be easily comforted or tricked by cosmetic fixes. Our ability to forgive is, in reality, an act of resistance to the attempts to lay the blame for this horror at the feet of one man. Two days after the nine assassinations at Mother Emanuel, I was asked to preach at New York’s renowned Riverside Church — a sermon which I later completed in my own pulpit, and said:
“The deep well of American racism and white supremacy that Dylann Roof drank from remains. … Many of South Carolina politicians and others in the nation are examples. They decry the killings but steadfastly refuse to support efforts to quell their divisive rhetoric and to cease their push for policies that promote race-based voter suppression. They refuse to vote for the Voting Rights Act. They cut funds for public education in ways that foster, resegregation. They deny workers living wages. They refuse medicaid expansion. They proliferate guns. They use racialized code words to criticize the president, all in the name of taking ‘their’ country back to ‘prevent its destruction. When will they own up to the fact that there is a history of racialized political rhetoric and policies that directly spawn the pathology of terroristic assassinations and carnages, and of violent resistance to constitutional decision?”
If America is serious about this moment, we cannot cry ceremonial tears while refusing to support the martyred pastor and his parishioners’ stalwart fight against the racism that gave birth to the crime. Gov. Haley said the people killed in that Charleston church and the forgiving actions of their families set the Confederate flag’s removal in motion. If that’s the case, then the actions of black protests don’t matter. Black political power doesn’t matter. Only in the face of nine black deaths, and a certain response, will anything be done. If this is the standard, how many black deaths will it take to secure restoration of the Voting Rights Act, Medicaid expansion, public education funding, living wages, or criminal justice reform? I shudder to think. This nation needs counseling and redemption until black lives and black life — in fact, all life — matters.
If the nation gets real sustained pastoral counseling, then, as Denise Quarles, the daughter of Emanuel victim Myra Thompson, said: “On the other side of that tragedy, we see a lot of positives coming out. Maybe people will change their hearts.”
Maybe we can be redeemed. Maybe we can do the real work of addressing institutional racism. Maybe. Let us believe in maybe. But as any good counselor knows with clear vision and experience on the front end of treatment — this is yet to be seen.