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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Eliminating Symbols and Practices that divide Us

On July 10, 2015, while visiting friends and relatives in Charlotte, North Carolina, I drove to Columbia, South Carolina to witness the dramatic lowering and removal of the Confederate flag from the state capital. As I made the one hour drive from Charlotte, I pondered over how far our nation had progressed, and why some in the South held on to the symbols of America’s racist past. It was ironic that although the State of South Carolina retired its symbol of racial oppression from its public center, several individuals in the crowd chose to display prominently this same symbol among the thousands in attendance.
Have academics done enough to teach our students and communities about the dehumanizing effects of slavery and racism, and how profoundly they affected the entire nation? We must not forget that while approximately 620,000 individuals gave their lives in the line of duty during the Civil War (1861-1865), of which a majority were Union soldiers, the United States as a nation, several years before the war began, endorsed racism and racial oppression through the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the United States Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v. Sandford  (1857). As a result of these national policies, black people were considered property under the law, and the effects of this widespread dehumanization was reflected in the recent racial violence in Charleston, South Carolina.
One of the most important lessons that we should learn as a nation from the events of June 17, 2015 that took place at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church, is that symbols of racial oppression matter because they oppress all of us. The young 21-year-old white man who pulled the trigger of the .44 caliber pistol nine times in a place of worship and took the lives of  Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Daniel Simmons, Cynthia Marie Graham-Hurd, Suzie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson, believed that the Confederate symbols of racial oppression and white supremacy justified his misguided actions. What he failed to realize, however, was that his cowardly deeds not only destroyed his own life, but also chipped away at every American’s sense of security and right to worship in a place of his/her choosing. By his use of the Confederate symbol of racial oppression and the blatant use of violence to ignite what he called a “race war,” he attempted to undermine the significant progress that we as a nation have made in race relations.  All of us must teach others that the actions of those who embrace symbols of racial division will not destroy racial progress that has been achieved through tremendous sacrifice by both blacks and whites.
The academic and sacred communities must seize the opportunity to introduce our young people to different symbols, such as those of humanism, peace, compassion, and reconciliation. Unfortunately the young man’s attendance at Emanuel’s Bible study class for one hour was insufficient time to erase from his mind the contemporary bigotry that had its genesis in slavery. While we, as a nation, have not overcome all inequalities within our society, we have moved far beyond the days of Confederate rebellion, slavery, and racial subjugation. The following excerpt from Supreme Court Justice John Harlan’s dissenting opinion in 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson should guide our thinking on this question of citizenship: “There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”
Let the murder of the Emanuel Nine help us, as a nation and as individuals, move forward and unite toward a single purpose of equality; let the academic and sacred communities chart paths of inclusion and compassion that will recognize our common humanity and rescue our youth and communities from the legacy of outdated symbols of racial hatred and violence. The flag of the United States, which African-Americans fought to preserve and protect in all military conflicts and wars, including the Civil War, is a symbol that all Americans could and should embrace during this precarious period of our history.