A Day for the History Books

Friday was a day for the history books.

Columbia, South Carolina. As the US and state flags fly at half-mast in mourning, the Confederate flag flies at full mast. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Columbia, South Carolina. As the US and state flags fly at half-mast in mourning, the Confederate flag flies at full mast. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

In Charleston, assassinated South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney was laid to rest. His was the first funeral of the nine murdered by a white supremacist. Much has been said and written about the deceased and about the effects of this terrorist act; of particular note are President Obama’s eulogy (link opens the complete video on C-Span) and my onetime Roosevelt colleague Patricia Lessane Williams’s New York Times op-ed she wrote in the wake of the atrocity next door to her workplace at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. Please read Patricia’s entire column. I quote her in part:

I can’t help but think of this senseless act of terror, the largest mass shooting in the country since 2013, within the historical context of the Birmingham bombing, but also within the very current context of the increasing terror we African-Americans face on a daily basis.

The shooter’s reported words to his victims reflect a deep-seated hatred for, and fear of, black people by many Americans. These vitriolic sentiments underscore the way we are stereotyped in the media, demonized and dehumanized by right-wing pundits, policed by law enforcement and terrorized by those who use Stand Your Ground to cut us down without a second thought.

For me, last night’s events signal several visceral truths. One, that we African-Americans have no sanctuary. Charleston is a wonderful city, but in some very real ways, my children are no safer here than they were in Chicago.

This daily threat of terror does not exist within a vacuum. It looms within the growing prison-industrial state, against the backdrop of school-reform debates, our slow movement toward gun reform and the political maneuvers by Republicans to make it increasingly more difficult for poor people and minorities to vote. The reality that our civil rights are under attack is just as heavy as our fear for our lives.

Statue of white supremacist and secession advocate John C. Calhoun on display in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in 2015.

Statue of white supremacist and secession advocate John C. Calhoun on display in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in 2015.

One remarkable result of the mourning in Charleston and across the country is a discussion about removing the symbols of the Confederacy from state and federal sites. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol. Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for the alteration of that state’s flag to remove the stars and bars. US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for the removal of a Jefferson Davis statue from Kentucky’s capitol. And talk has begun about the process of removing statues of several Confederate icons (including white supremacist John C. Calhoun) from the Capitol in Washington DC.

As of this writing, all these symbols remain intact, although Bree Newsome briefly took down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse Saturday morning. I hope this discussion leads to the depositing of all these symbols in museums, further removing them and what they stand for from legitimacy in the twenty-first century. Plenty has been said about the flag; more should be said about John C. Calhoun and what he means in the present moment.

That the Capitol should have a statue of the architect of secession always struck me as at best ironic and at worst deeply disrespectful of the millions of Americans descended from the people Calhoun wanted to keep enslaved at any price. Calhoun so fetishized white supremacy that he subscribed to emerging pseudo-scientific racial theories to justify keeping those of African heritage in bondage. (I elaborate on the theories he championed in the second chapter of Clean and White.) Calhoun so fetishized slavery that the onetime vice president articulated a “concurrent majority” legal principle empowering states to nullify those federal laws that do not suit their prejudices. Calhoun so fetishized white supremacy that he laid the groundwork for secession, the ultimate disloyalty to the Union. His statue at the heart of government is an affront to the people and government of the United States of America. Any iconography of Calhoun installed in Washington after April 12, 1861 is a blatant celebration of white supremacy at the expense of people who suffered and died because of what he advocated. Deciding to fly the Confederate flag on state grounds in 1961 (when South Carolina began to do so) is the same.

Removing these symbols will not solve the problems facing this nation. Removing them will not address the causes of lethal violence, segregation, imprisonment, or the economic structures of inequality. But removing them is a necessary move to delegitimizing the appeals to white supremacy that have fueled the nation’s gun culture, redlining, and economic discrimination, as well as the acts of terrorism from the KKK’s bloody “redeeming” of slavery to the blood spilled in Charleston this month. Should removal come to pass, we will no longer see at statehouses state-sanctioned icons of white supremacy enshrined during dark periods of suppression. The flag and statues were added to government property at various times, ranging from the 1860s terror campaigns to the lynchings of the early 20th century and the attacks by law enforcement against Civil Rights protestors in the 1960s. These are the icons invoked by a terrorist in 2015 to kill Cynthia Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman, DePayne Doctor, and Clementa Pinckney.

Crowds celebrate as the White House is illuminated in the colors of the rainbow after the Supreme Court protects the right to same-sex marriage across the nation.

Crowds celebrate as the White House is illuminated in the colors of the rainbow after the Supreme Court protects the right to same-sex marriage across the nation.

Friday was a day for the history books. On the morning of Pinckney’s funeral, the US Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that same-sex marriage (and the recognition of same-sex unions nationwide) was protected by the Constitution. It was a day that protected the rights and liberties of millions of Americans, a day worthy of celebration, and one historians will discuss decades from now. Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority decision, declaring that the plaintiffs were “seeking dignity in the eyes of the law,” that “the fundamental liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices defining personal identity and belief,” and “no longer may this liberty be denied.”

Dissenting from the majority was my old neighbor Nino Scalia. (Like Patricia Williams Lessane, Nino Scalia used to live on the South Side of Chicago. Similarities end with that geographical fact.) Scalia declared that the Supreme Court had made a “naked judicial claim to legislative—indeed, super-legislative—power; a claim fundamentally at odds with our system of government,” done so by nine justices who were “hardly a cross-section of America.”

Scalia’s intent is clear. By saying the Court did not represent the nation, he echoed the words and sentiment of John C. Calhoun. The onetime vice president declared in 1836 that nothing in the federal government’s power was going to eliminate slavery from those states that depended upon the peculiar institution:

The relation which now exists between the two races in the slaveholding States has existed for two centuries. It has grown with our growth, and strengthened with our strength. It has entered into and modified all our institutions, civil and political. None other can be substituted. We will not, cannot permit it to be destroyed. If we were base enough to do so, we would be traitors to our section, to ourselves, our families, and to posterity…. Come what will, should it cost every drop of blood, and every cent of property, we must defend ourselves; and if compelled, we would stand justified by all laws, human and divine…With these impressions, I ask neither sympathy nor compassion for the slaveholding States. We can take care of ourselves. It is not we, but the Union which is in danger. It is that which demands our care – demands that the agitation of this question shall cease here – that you shall refuse to receive this petitions, and decline all jurisdiction over the subject of abolition, in every form and shape. It is only on these terms that the Union can be safe. We cannot remain here in an endless struggle in defence of our character, our property, and institutions.

Calhoun provided a framework for delegitimizing federal power in order to oppress vulnerable peoples for the comfort of a few. In his career, Scalia has followed that instinct, just this term casting votes to deny millions health care, deny historically discriminated people recourse for fair housing, and, here, to preserve inequality for families based upon sexual orientation. In the past, he has successfully voted to dismantle the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enacted to protect citizens from systematic disenfranchisement. (We may be at ease knowing Loving v. Virginia was decided two decades before he joined the Court.) His attitude toward the most vulnerable of this nation’s peoples is as callous as a parent beating a small child with a belt. At worst, his judicial record fits well with Calhoun’s ideology and the ideologies of those bigots who revere Calhoun.

Happily, all three of his major votes this term were unsuccessful. Indeed, Scalia’s hubris in his United States v. Windsor dissent provided language that bolstered the case decided Friday, so perhaps Americans should thank the justice for letting his ego and tongue run amuck. But Scalia invoking Calhoun on the very day that the corrosive symbolism of Calhoun is finally being addressed shows the measure of the man. The nation’s injustices will not be solved by removing the symbols of the Confederacy, nor will they be resolved on the day Scalia’s time on the Court comes to an end. The toxic legacy of Calhoun in both those symbols and Scalia’s philosophy matter in ways all too tangible today. We will be better with them, and him, relegated to the history books in an open discussion of the long struggles for liberty and justice in the United States of America.

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