Six years ago, Dylann Roof told friends he wanted to start a “race war.” Then, on June 17, 2015, he attended a Bible study meeting at the historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine people, all of them Black. The act of terror shocked America with its chilling brutality.
“Nine people were killed because of racism,” Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, senior pastor of the “Mother Emanuel” church, who was slain that fateful day, told the Southern Poverty Law Center. “What happened in Charleston opened the eyes of many people that didn’t want to believe that racism and hate still existed.”
Photos depicting the 21-year-old white supremacist with the Confederate battle flag – including one picture in which he held the flag in one hand and a gun in the other –ignited not a race war, but something else entirely: a grassroots movement to remove the flag from public spaces.
After documenting that Roof had been radicalized by white supremacist websites, the SPLC began to catalogue all of the Confederate monuments and other symbols in public spaces across the country and published the data in its Whose Heritage? report. The SPLC has continued to track public symbols of the Confederacy across the nation that have come down since Roof’s ruthless massacre.
Since the Charleston Church shooting, more than 300 Confederate symbols have been removed, including 170 monuments.
As deadly violence against the Black community continues, Pinckney hopes that as monuments come down, the movement offers the opportunity for people nationwide to understand that Confederate symbols have served to terrorize the Black community since they first began to be put in place after the Civil War.
“The Confederate flag is a symbol of racism in its purest form,” she said. “Its effects are still present in our society. Every day is a constant reminder that nine people lost their lives and that nothing has changed over the past six years.”
‘A reminder of hate’
After Roof attacked the church and shattered a community, the South’s 150-year reverence for the Confederacy was shaken. The aftermath of the shooting brought a moment of deep reflection in the South, as the nation mourned and cried out for change.
Public officials in many locales responded by removing prominent public displays of Confederate iconography.
The movement gained steam amid a period of growing alarm about the vast racial disparities in our country, seen most vividly in the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, Yassin Mohamed, Rayshard Brooks and Daunte Wright, among other Black lives taken by police, intensified a nationwide call for policing reforms, and renewed calls to remove all references to the Confederacy from public places.
Following the Charleston shooting, South Carolina officials acted first, passing legislation to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds, where it had flown since 1962.
Later and across the South, communities began taking a critical look at many other symbols honoring the Confederacy and its icons. While many white Southerners view Confederate iconography as emblems of their heritage and regional pride – despite its association with slavery, Jim Crow and the violent resistance to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s – others were quick to act and demand the removal of what they call symbols of hate.
But for Pinckney, the movement is not enough to undo the trauma she suffered six years ago, especially in light of the mounting murders of Black people by police and vigilantes.
“The Charleston anniversary is a constant reminder of the day my life and my daughters’ lives changed,” she said. “Every time a person of color is murdered in this country, it is a reminder that nothing has changed in the last six years.”
The movement continues
New data from the SPLC also shows that more than 1,895 Confederate symbols are still publicly present in the U.S.; 692 of those symbols are monuments, many of them prominently located at county courthouses and town squares. In addition to monuments, statues, plaques and markers, the overall number includes government buildings, schools, parks, counties, cities, military bases and streets and highways named after Confederate figures.
In this latest update of the data, the SPLC has changed the designation of 32 memorials that were previously listed as removed, because the pedestals were left in place and have words or symbols memorializing the Confederacy in some way. In this and subsequent data updates, monuments will be listed as removed only if the pedestals are also removed.
Since the Charleston massacre, most of the removals have been driven by local activists and officials, and that has prompted state legislatures in a number of Southern states to enact laws making it more difficult to remove monuments. In, South Carolina, for example, the Heritage Act ensured that no symbols were removed in that state last year despite efforts led by grassroots groups.
“The fact that officials in South Carolina are still perpetuating the ‘Lost Cause,’ whitewashing history, celebrating a secessionist government and harboring nostalgia for slavery is unacceptable,” said Susan Corke, the SPLC’s Intelligence Project director.
Despite setbacks, the movement to remove or relocate Confederate symbols continues to play out from coast to coast. Still grieving, Pinckney hopes the movement will allow people to accept one another’s differences and help drive out the racism that’s infecting the country. But she’s also left with a lingering question that she cannot answer.
“Every time someone sees Confederate memorabilia, it’s providing another excuse for people to be OK with racism being casually integrated into society,” Pickney said. “Every time another family loses someone they love, more people join the fight for racial equality and social justice. The question we have to answer is how many people have to lose their lives for everyone to realize that we all need to fight for racial equality and social justice in order for things to change.”
Photo at top: A crew prepares to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Lee Park in Dallas in 2017 after the city council voted to remove the statue. The park, named after the Confederate leader, is now known as Turtle Creek Park. Credit: D Guest Smith/Alamy Live News