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HAMILTON, ON Jul 15, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Seventeen years is a long time to wait in politics. One would think that was the case for David Beasley, former Republican governor of South Carolina. But is it really that long?
The answer came last Friday at 10 a.m., as police lowered and removed the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State House in Columbia. It was a memorial moment for the state, and the country, and especially so for Beasley who, in the aftermath of the Charleston church shootings, and with the help of many others, won the fight to have the controversial flag removed.
The gesture and its necessity can be perplexing for Canadians.
I’m not sure I would have understood it, if not for my good fortune to be on the Capitol building steps with Beasley as the flag came down. The vivid, emotional meaning of the event transcended geography or common history.
The crowd was curiously quiet for a bit. Then the shout began and built in intensity: “Take it down. Take it down. Take it down!” The power of the chant was the force of time moving forward in a way that seemed to obliterate ever going backward. And it was, in its way, that most American of sounds: the voice of the people demanding change with an authority that no one dared to challenge.
That flag was coming down. So it did. And yet it almost didn’t.
In 1998, then-governor Beasley decided the Confederate flag must be removed. He fought an election over it, committing to remove the flag from the State House if he won. He lost. Pundits agreed it was an election from which he should have emerged victorious.
Instead, Beasley saw a hole torn in his political career. He suffered through death threats against him and his family.
Perhaps worst of all, he had to wait almost two decades to do what he knew, and declared, should be done. He wanted the Confederate flag removed before the new millennium, before the United States elected its first black president, before nine people lost their lives inside a church in the name of the dehumanizing hatred the Confederate flag had unfortunately come to represent.
I spent time in Beasley’s company before and after the flag was lowered and detected not a hint of regret or rancour about his 1998 election loss. What motivated him was not political vindication or even the justice of a government righting a wrong. It was deeper than that. It was, he said to me, a motivation to honour the desire of a society “wanting and needing to love their neighbour as themselves.”
I think he meant “neighbour” in the deepest, most personal sense, as it meant to someone else 2,000 years ago. I think it was meant to include the father of one of the shooting victims, who was there to see that flag come down. But I think Beasley meant it, too, as the great underlying principle of all great civilizations, as is the United States.
The former governor’s roots are deep in South Carolina soil. His family’s history of farming and banking is embedded in three centuries of the state’s story.
In South Carolina, across the United States and even in Canada, we can be thankful that one of this family’s sons had a hand in constructing history with enough unshakeable conviction to turn it from failure to victory. One cannot help but wonder if his hurtful loss of 1998 was history planning a 17-year, messy redemption of one neighbour to another.
Michael Van Pelt is President of Cardus, a Hamilton-based think tank.