Where were you when the flag came down?

"You should remember where you were when this happened," said CNN's Don Lemon this morning as he awaited the lowering of the Confederate battle flag at the State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina.
 
I was alone in my kitchen, fixated on a small television screen, wishing mightily that I could be there on the grounds, standing and cheering with the thousands, black and white, joined together to witness the lowering of a symbol of racism and divisiveness. If there were any dissenters in the crowd, they were drowned out.
 
After the flag was respectfully folded, the crowd gave a boisterous rendition of the pop song refrain "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." It wasn't "Amazing Grace" or "We Shall Overcome," and I was a bit let down by the musical choice. But the removal of the flag to a military museum was a moving and historic moment.
 
Will it be a transformational one? For that, we'll have to work hard and see.
 
Two weeks before a white racist murdered nine black parishioners at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I was in South Carolina in part to research my deep family roots in the state. Some roots I want to hang onto, and some I'd like to sever. But they are all mine, and I must live with them.
Many eloquent voices, black and white, persuaded the state's Republican-controlled legislature to finally remove the "rebel" flag, an act they would have found unthinkable before the Charleston massacre. One of them was Republican State Rep. Jenny Horne, a white woman descended from the Confederate president.
 
"I have heard enough about heritage," a tearful Horne told her legislative colleagues. "I am a descendant of Jefferson Davis, OK? But that does not matter. It's not about Jenny Horne. It's about the people of South Carolina who have demanded that this symbol of hate come off the Statehouse grounds."
 
I am descended from various slaveholders, including a Charleston man who signed the Ordinance of Secession, and a Sumter man who fought for the Confederacy at age 16 with a slave in tow. But the man from Sumter became a progressive newspaper editor who fiercely condemned lynching and championed African-American education and voting rights.
 
I am neither ashamed of the secessionist nor proud of the progressive, because shame and pride should be reserved for what we do, not what we came from. Horne is right that it doesn't matter if she's descended from Jefferson Davis. What matters is that we learn from our own heritage and other people's heritage. Only then can we hope to leave a better heritage for all.
 
The Confederate battle flag was first flown from atop the dome of South Carolina's Statehouse in 1961, not as a symbol of Southern heritage but as a repudiation of civil rights and integration. It was relocated to the Statehouse grounds in 2000, as a compromise, but I never saw it there until this June.
 
On a 2006 visit to Columbia I discussed the flag with a cousin descended, as I am, from the Sumter editor, and also from Confederate General Wade Hampton. We agreed the flag belonged in a museum, but her Hampton family had helped broker the compromise. At least it was off the dome, she said.
 
But when I saw where it was, flying prominently before the Statehouse, I was shocked. Its placement made it hard to see anything else.
 
During my latest visit to Columbia my husband and I stayed, via the AirB&B network in which people rent rooms in their homes, with an African-American couple. They weren't originally from the state, and I was hoping to hear they felt comfortable and happily integrated there.
 
In some ways they did, but in others they did not. They wanted to move at some point, and that made me sad, because this couple has so much to offer. Listening to today's commentary on the flag removal, one of the most hopeful things said was that it should make South Carolina feel more welcoming to all.
 
When the Confederate flag came down today, I marked the time: 10:10 EST. It was a great moment, born out of great sorrow, for South Carolina, and it wasn't the only one recorded in that state this year.
 
When the families of those murdered in the AME church publicly forgave the murderer, a devotee of the Confederate flag who had said he wanted to start a race war, their grace amazed the nation. The murderer will face justice. But the families were able to forgive him, I believe, because they understood that his mind was poisoned somewhere along the way.
 
Prior to the Charleston church massacre, a white police officer killed an unarmed black man in North Charleston after a traffic stop and was promptly fired and charged with murder. There were no riots like happened in other states, and there were no riots after the church murders.
 
At funeral services for the AME victims in Charleston, black leaders said those who expected riots didn't "know who we are." I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking: Who they are, is what America should be.
 
Hard work remains to be done throughout the country to equalize opportunity and repair race relations. But when the Confederate flag came down in Columbia this morning, it felt like the state that started the secession movement had not only finally rejoined the Union, but also given the Union hope.
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Bethe Dufresne, a frequent contributor, is a freelance writer living in Old Mystic, Connecticut.

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