A week after a white man killed nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina, Gov. Robert Bentley took a pragmatic step that should be universally applauded: Bentley on Wednesday ordered the removal of Confederate flags from the Capitol grounds.
It will be a controversial move among a portion of his base. It shouldn’t be.
Bentley is not the first governor to recognize that the flag is an anachronism for a state that aggressively seeks to recruit industry from outside its borders, a state that spends considerable sums of money marketing itself as a good home for highly educated professionals.
In April 1993, Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. ordered the Confederate flag removed from its prominent spot atop the Capitol building. It was placed there in 1963 at the order of Gov. George Wallace in advance of a visit by U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The purpose of the visit was to discuss Wallace’s opposition to allowing black students to enroll at the University of Alabama.
Folsom this week reflected on his decision in an interview with The Montgomery Advertiser.
“It was just time to put it behind us,” Folsom said. “The controversy was overshadowing a lot of good things we were doing in economic development. It wasn’t a politic thing to do, because a lot of people were very emotional about it, and they voiced that to me.”
One of the good things the flag overshadowed was Folsom’s efforts to recruit Mercedes-Benz to Vance, near Tuscaloosa.
“If I had not taken the battle flag down from the top of the Capitol dome, I really don’t think we would have been successful in that endeavor,” Folsom said.
It was Folsom who had the flags moved to the Confederate Memorial — still on the Capitol grounds, but in a less prominent spot.
Bentley’s decision may have been triggered by other motivations, but one no doubt was the pragmatic desire for economic development. The Confederate flag is more of an impediment to recruitment of international companies now than it was before the Charleston killings, because the whole world has been seeing pictures of avowed white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof, 21, waving his Confederate battle flag before allegedly shooting churchgoers he deemed his inferiors.
Bentley’s decision also was politically pragmatic. Twenty-seven percent of Alabama’s population — 1.3 million people — are black. Many are descendants of the same people that Alabama was determined to keep enslaved.
Bentley is a conservative. He rails against federal authority at every turn, rarely spurning a podium from which he can preach the benefits of states’ rights and limited government. He no doubt recognizes the Confederate flag has been adopted by some as a symbol for states’ rights. But it’s a lousy symbol for a governmental philosophy held by many intelligent, moral people.
The state right that prompted Alabama’s secession from the Union was not whether the state could have control over health care. It was not about gun control or immigration. The issue that triggered the Civil War and spawned the Confederate battle flag was whether states had a right to allow their white citizens to own other human beings.
Those who protest most strenuously against Bentley’s decision to remove the Confederate flags from the Capitol grounds should be the first to thank him. The push for states’ rights and limited government is racially neutral and is not immoral. Tying that cause to a symbol whose origin is inextricably linked to a belief in white supremacy and of a right to own other human beings always has been a mistake.
(Published June 25, 2015)