Columbia, SC -- For the last few weeks since the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 17th, the fierce debate here and around the nation revolved around whether or not the Confederate flag should be removed from SC's Capitol grounds.
From the day after the shooting, the Confederate flag drew attention and scorn for flying at full mast when the state and US flag above the dome were lowered by the Governor's order to half-mast in an expression of mourning. Petitions began circulating as early as June 18th through MoveOn and other networks with hundreds of thousands people demanding the removal of the Confederate flag from all government property in South Carolina.
There were three main spaces where the debate took placel leading up to the vote by the General Assembly to remove the flag after 1am Friday morning, July 10th. The first space was the media, both traditional and social media. The second space was in the two chambers of the SC General Assembly. The third space was the open area under the Confederate flag around the flag pole. This last location became the civic space — open to all — where people gathered to demonstrate and compete for support from the cars passing by the Capitol building on Gervais St.
There were several planned rallies for both sides of the debate. But even without any planned activities, at any given time during the day, at least a dozen or so people could be found waving the Confederate flag or holding signs such as "Take Down the Flag."
Even with the heat reaching over 90 degrees on many days, the people gathered daily to demonstrate their side of the argument.
At times, protesters would face off in contentious arguments about whether or not the flag represented hatred or heritage or both. The arguments revolved around differences about slavery, the causes of the Civil War, the meaning of the flag, and whether or not the flag should be removed.
There were a number of people who came seeking not only arguments, but real dialogue with the "other side" hoping to understand, persuade, and connect at a human level. Some of the people I witnessed engaging in dialogue included Jalal Abdul of Columbia, Crush Rush of Lexington, Casey Kelley of Gilbert, and John Anthony Miller of Columbia. There were many others whose I did not catch.
The situation on the street among protesters was quite tense at times with at least one fight leading to an arrest. Some of the lawmakers received death threats full of the worst kind hate speech. You may have shaken your head reading such news reports from this state.
What you may not have heard is that the arguments among the people here often ended with handshakes, hugs, smiles, and even prayers.
I saw people getting out of their comfort zones and engaging in heartfelt conversations on both sides of the debate. I also saw seeds of real friendships being born as well.
Before coming to South Carolina two weeks ago, I wondered if removing the flag would really change anything at a substantive level. Situated under the flag and influenced by the spirit of love and compassion expressed by the victims' families to Dylan Roof, I saw something that gives me real hope for America. Hatred started this chain of events in South Carolina, but love is what I witnessed again and again since I've been here.
No, this was about more than a symbol or a flag. It's about the deep soul-searching that took place privately. It's the heartfelt conversations that took place publicly. What has taken place here is hugely substantive and historic.
As challenging as it is, the genuine dialog and in-person social encounters should serve as a model for us all in achieving racial reconciliation.
"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies." - Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861
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