George W. Bush has ducked the question of whether South Carolina should haul down the Confederate flag. But regardless of Bush's position, the flag will likely come down, and soon. Even before the huge demonstration on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, some of South Carolina's most venerable and conservative institutions (the Citadel, Bob Jones University, the South Carolina Baptist Convention) have been lobbying to lower the flag, stimulated in part by the NAACP's call last July for a tourism boycott.
Black South Carolinians, roughly 30 percent of the population, have been against the flag since it was raised by an all-white general assembly in 1962. But serious debate has begun only recently. The first public hearing took place in 1994, when the Republican-controlled house killed the Democrat-controlled senate's plan to move the flag from the capitol dome to a Confederate monument on the statehouse grounds. Two years later, Republican Governor David Beasley--tilting at the windmill of national prominence-- proposed a similar compromise on statewide television. The house killed it again, and Beasley lost his bid for re-election in 1998.
The NAACP boycott has upped the stakes dramatically. South Carolina's economy is heavily dependent on tourism. In 1997 more than two million blacks visited the state and spent $280 million; now more than 80 groups have canceled events there. But the boycott's effect on the state's prestige may be as important as lost revenue. South Carolina won't ever be at the vanguard of anything--higher education, politics, high-tech industry--until it convinces the rest of the country that it's not full of unreconstructed racists.
Jim Clyburn, the only black congressman from South Carolina and the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, has tapped into this anxiety. "South Carolina is wellpositioned to be a leader in so many ways," he told a gathering of the NAACP on Hilton Head Island in December 1999. "It makes no sense for us to continue fighting the Civil War ... or if it suits you better, the War of Northern Aggression." Clyburn is telling white South Carolinians they can be as racist as they want to be, but they have to take the flag down because it is as bad for them as it is for blacks. The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, Charleston and Hilton Head (which rely on tourism) and Greenville and Spartanburg (which rely on industry), and the University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston are now all officially on record as agreeing with Clyburn, and all of this has happened in the six months since the boycott was announced.
In Charleston a former state representative who voted to raise the flag in 1962 is helping lead the effort to take it down. George Campsen, Jr., owner of a tour company, is telling everybody who will listen that the general assembly really meant to leave the flag up for one year only, to honor the Con-federate centennial, and just forgot to take it down. Campsen even found 66 lawmakers from 1962 and got 48 of them to sign a petition asking legislators to "correct our omission by moving the flag to a place of honor on the statehouse grounds." That puts the current South Carolina General Assembly--with its comfortable pro-flag majority in the house--in the peculiar position of being less racially progressive than the Jim Crow general assembly of 1962.
The reason is simple electoral politics. Most members of the house's pro-flag majority come from bleached white districts whose voters think the boycott is blackmail and say they will never capitulate to the NAACP. Representative John Graham Altman, a leading flag supporter from Charleston, told a House Judiciary Committee meeting that "folks who feel crippled" by the flag should "quit looking at symbols, get out and get a job, quit shooting each other, and quit having illegitimate babies." Altman clearly isn't concerned about how he's perceived by the outside world, or outside his district, for that matter.
The fate of the Confederate flag now flying over the statehouse will depend largely on the state's business community. The pro-flag majority in the house is comfortable, but not overwhelming. And sooner or later (sooner, if the business community really applies some pressure), the flag is going to come down.