MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - When Governor Robert Bentley decided to remove Confederate flags from the grounds of the Alabama State House, he predictably stirred the anger of both racists and those who revere all things Confederate, including the battle flag of the Confederacy.
I write "both" because I believe there really are two different groups here -- those who defend the Rebel flag because it has become a symbol of resistance to racial change, and what I believe is a much smaller group who sincerely want to honor the memory of those whom they see as fallen war heroes who were just defending their homeland.
But those non-racists who are upset at the removal of the flags of the Confederacy are off-target when they direct their anger at Bentley or other politicians who support the flag removal. They really should be upset at the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups that long ago successfully co-opted Rebel flags -- and especially the battle flag -- and turned them into a symbol of hatred for their own twisted purposes.
Some background: After a gunman shot and killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., attention was focused anew on the Confederate flag still standing on the grounds of the South Carolina State House. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley called for the flag to be removed, but in South Carolina that requires the Legislature to act.
The debate in South Carolina naturally spilled over into the other states -- including Alabama -- that still have Confederate flags flying in some way on state grounds.
That prompted Bentley this week to order the Confederate flags flying around the Confederate monument on the grounds of the Alabama State House to be removed. In Alabama, unlike South Carolina, the governor has that power, although the Legislature conceivably could pass a law to overrule him. (Please, please, legislators, don't try to go there. Such attempts hopefully would fail, but still serve to put Alabama in the national spotlight in a bad way.)
Bentley acknowledged his action was partially about the Charleston tragedy, saying it was "the right thing to do." But he added, "We are facing some major issues in this state regarding the budget and other matters that we need to deal with. This had the potential to become a major distraction as we go forward. I have taxes to raise, we have work to do. And it was my decision that the flag needed to come down."
Good for him. Once he rides out the current flurry of criticism -- and assuming the Legislature doesn't do anything foolish -- it should put this issue behind the state for a while.
As editorial page editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, I wrote many editorials calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from the Capitol dome. When flags later were returned to the grounds near the Confederate monument, I knew it only was a matter of time until the controversy was renewed.
Now back to my original point: Non-racists who lament the loss of the Confederate flag should save their ire for the racists who have turned the flag into a symbol of hate.
The non-racist flag defenders also should be upset with the politicians who, during the decades of the Civil Rights Movement, used the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance to social change.
That includes Gov. George Wallace. On the eve of a visit by U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1963, the Confederate naval jack was raised over the Capitol dome as a snub to federal intervention on racial issues. Such a blatant use of the flag to make a politically controversial statement further entrenched it as a symbol of racism.
Defenders of the Confederate flag would have the public believe that they are only defending history and do not want to see it twisted. But then some of them try to defend the Civil War as having nothing to do with slavery. They try to sell the canard that the war was all about states' rights. To argue that slavery was not an issue intertwined throughout the various causes of the Civil War is twisting history far more than those who want to remove any official use of the Confederate flag ever could.
Perhaps if those who would honor the Confederacy had started decades ago to vehemently and publicly condemn the KKK and others who co-opted the Rebel flag they might have some ground to stand on now. But the fact is that flags of the Confederacy, and especially the battle flag, have become symbols of racism and hatred.
It's long past time that this state and all states stopped their official use in anything other than a museum setting.
Ken Hare is a longtime newspaper editorial page editor and editorial writer who now writes a regular column for wsfa.com.