The 50-mile commute that Dr. Earl Bostick Sr. makes to the offices of his dental practice in a small South Carolina town is not unlike others in the rural South. Not much stands out from the narrow, tree-lined, two-lane highway the 67-year-old African-American drives to and from work aside from the seemingly obligatory presence of Confederate flags, which he typically spots hanging from home porch posts or on passing vehicles.
Despite the pervasive "stars and bars" imagery -- for him, a searing reminder of segregation and racial animosity between whites and blacks in many local communities -- when Bostick finally pulls in to the town of Ridgeland, he walks into his family practice knowing that he'll treat both members of both races. It wasn't always that way, he said.
"When I first started, my practice was mostly black [patients]," said Bostick, who was the first black licensed dentist in Jasper County 35 years ago. "After five to 10 years, we had almost as many whites coming in as blacks."
In the wake of the recent massacre in Charleston -- an act carried out by a white, professed racist who was apparently inspired by Confederate, apartheid and “white-rule” propaganda -- intense public backlash against Confederate symbols has seen the flags pulled down from various Southern state capitols. As the nation evolved on race, Confederate honor societies that defend the symbols as part of family heritage lost favor with the public, and recent events give hope to some Southerners that the flags will come down for good on government grounds and in their communities.
“This is just one more thing adding to the insult and injury on the African-American community,” Bostick said. “I’m hoping that this tragedy will lead to changes. But what I’m really afraid of is that, a week or two weeks after, people have a tendency to forget.”
Ridgeland, one of the poorer communities in Jasper County, has a population of 4,036 that is almost evenly split between whites and blacks and is home to some residents who openly fly the flag. It's also the hometown of Clementa Pinckney, the black pastor of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston who died in the June 17 hate-motivated attack along with 8 others.
Bostick said some of his patients, both black and white, have expressed to him their sadness over the shooting and the loss of Pinckney. But others have been less eager to discuss the Confederate flag, he said.
"Just because folks don’t complain, that don’t mean that we approve of it," Bostick said.
Across town from Bostick’s dental practice, Leon Smith, a white man, said his neighbors and friends, both black and white, have yet to complain to him about the pole on his yard that displays the Confederate flag at full mast. The 46-year-old American Civil War reenactor said that’s because they benefit from having him around to help debunk the stereotype that those who celebrate the Confederate flag are white racists longing for the days of Jim Crow segregation and slavery.
“My grandfather fought in the Civil War, but we didn’t own slaves,” insisted Smith, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who has traced his lineage back to past family generations and is upset over the anti-flag backlash. His membership with the group that some say is racist for honoring figures who favored slavery was meant to honor his heritage, he said. “[The flag is] not a symbol of racism or slavery. It’s not even the true flag of the Confederacy.”
Bostick, also a deacon at a nearby church, knows Smith and has treated his daughter. “The Bible says if something offends my brother, I shouldn’t do it,” Bostick said. “So if you know something offends me, then why would you put it in my face?”
Anti-Flag Movement Spreads, Decades After Symbol Evolved
Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old charged in the June 17 shooting deaths of nine members of the historically black Emanuel AME, with his actions unwittingly set off a debate about Confederate symbols across the U.S. An anti-black manifesto and selfie images with Confederate flags were ultimately surfaced on a website he’d created. Roof faces murder and weapons charges, and is likely to be prosecuted under a federal hate crime statute.
As officials in Southern states, including South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Virginia, ordered the removal of the flag or debated the removal by state legislatures, anti-flag protesters last week launched more than 60 Change.org petitions against symbols as far north as New York state. Amazon and eBay also announced that they would no longer allow Confederate flags and other related merchandise to be sold on its Web stores.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Confederate flag became a symbol in the Deep South, and quietly up north, of their support for segregation, black disenfranchisement and cultural pride. And in the post-civil rights era, it became a widely used symbol of white hate groups, said Akil Houston, associate professor of African-American studies at Ohio University in Athens.
“Most minorities can only see that as a symbol of hate,” Houston said. “For those that would argue it is part of history and pride, they have a valid point. But you can’t divorce the perception of racism and hatred from that.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Tennessee-based group that regularly organizes Civil War battle reenactments and educational programs for public and private schools, has tried to temper the flag backlash with facts about Confederate heritage. For years, the group has fought with publicly racist groups neo-Nazis and skinheads over their use of the flag to promote hate, said Michael Skinner, the lieutenant commander for a Confederate honor society in Ridgeland.
“In my few years in the historical organization, I have learned of amazing stories of black Confederates,” he said. “Trying to get these stories out to the public has been met with scorn, ridicule and hate. It doesn't fit into the nice black-versus-white, good-versus-evil storyline we have been led to believe.”
Civil Rights Groups At Heart Of Opposition
Opposition to Confederate symbols grew with intensity during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, scholars say. But that drew less media attention than the marches and sit-ins led by prominent civil rights leaders.
In 1999, South Carolina became a prominent battle ground for civil rights leaders and state officials, who fought over a law that placed the flag above the state capitol. The NAACP encouraged black family reunions, professional sporting events and entertainers to boycott the state until officials agreed to move the flag, according to an Associated Press report.
Following the tragedy in Charleston, the NAACP again promised to turn up the pressure if lawmakers didn’t answer Gov. Nikki Haley’s call for a vote by lawmakers to move the flag from state capitol grounds. “Nothing is more hospitable than creating an environment of inclusion for people of all races, colors, creeds and faiths,” Cornell William Brooks, the NAACP president and CEO, said in a statement last week.
Negative View Of Flag Grows After Church Shooting
Since the early 1990s, polls have shown that the shift toward negative opinions of the flag has been a long time coming. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey taken during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War found that far more African-Americans than whites – 49 percent compared to 29 percent -- had negative reactions to the flag.
A new Public Policy Polling survey released last Monday found that only one in five Americans support flying the Confederate flag at government buildings, an attitude likely impacted by the Charleston shooting. In 1992, a Gallup poll showed 56 percent of people approved of flying the flag. By 2015, the PPP poll showed support dropped to 22 percent.
Alonia Jones, a 47-year-old African-American mother of four in Atlanta, said she developed opinions about the flag as a college student during the late 1980s. Jones watched local coverage of a civil rights demonstration and noticed that white counter-protesters were waving Confederate flags at the marchers. “When you fly the flag, you’re telling me that you hate me. You’ve already showed me that you don’t want me around,” Jones said.
Tammy Bayley is a black native of New Orleans, but didn’t understand the meaning behind the Confederate flag until she moved to Dallas as an adult during the late 1990s. In Texas, she said, motorists’ display of the flag is commonplace. “[The flag is] contrary to what we say our country believes in,” said Bayley, 47. “It’s disrespectful that it’s been flying all this time.”
Rural Community Split Over Flying The Flag
In 2013, Missy Axe moved into the home across the street from Smith, the Confederate enthusiast in Ridgeland. Originally from Pennsylvania, the 51-year-old white “Yankee” said her son, husband and father are history buffs who own Confederate memorabilia. She does not object to their display around the house, but she understands why some would see Smith’s flagpole as offensive.
“I personally am not offended,” Axe said. “But if it were some skinhead who is raising a flag like that in a negative tone, I would probably have something to say. I think that should be upsetting to everyone, black, white or Asian; I don’t care.”
Smith said he believes removal of the flag in South Carolina would do more harm than good. “It would cause a bigger divide, a bigger rift between whites and blacks,” he said. “If they waited a while, perhaps cooler heads would prevail and the [Son of Confederate Veterans] would volunteer a compromise.”
Bostick, the Ridgeland dentist, said he’s never been by Smith’s neighborhood to see his flag and doubts that Smith will succeed against the negative opinions of it. “He’s not going to change anybody’s mind about flying the flag -- not from his testimony, anyway.”