by Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. He is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.
The most important fact about the killings in Charleston on Wednesday night is that nine people who should be alive today were murdered. No discussion of what happened should lose sight of this essential truth. However, it is well worth considering why they were murdered and what actions can be taken to address the racial hatred that led a white man to end the lives of nine African Americans.
We know that the confessed killer, Dylann Roof, was motivated by racism. A survivor of the shooting tells us that the killer responded to pleas that he stop shooting by saying “No, you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country…I have to do what I have to do.” The killer reportedly told investigators that he hoped to start a race war.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has quite rightly observed that the killer’s “crime cannot be divorced from the ideology of white supremacy which long animated [South Carolina] nor from its potent symbol—the Confederate flag.” South Carolina, of course, continues to fly “the Confederate battle flag—the flag of Dylann Roof—…on the Capitol grounds in Columbia.” Coates points out that the right thing to do -- the long overdue thing to do -- is to “take down the Confederate flag -- now.”
Those who defend South Carolina’s continuing decision to fly the Confederate flag often claim the flag stands for states’ rights, not slavery and racism. South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford argued last night that some people see the flag as “a symbol of heritage, a symbol of states’ rights.” People are of course entitled to have an opinion, but the idea that the Confederate flag stands for states’ rights is not an opinion, it is a distortion of historical fact -- a dangerous distortion, because it can be used as cover by racists who seek to sanitize their hateful views.
The reality is that, as historian Eric Foner says, “slavery was the fundamental cause of the civil war.” The Confederate states subordinated states’ rights to the central goal of preserving slavery and white superiority. The evidence supporting this reality is clear and compelling. The Confederate constitution contained a federal supremacy clause closely modeled on the federal supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution, declaring that: “This Constitution, and the laws of the Confederate States made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the Confederate States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” In other words, the individual states making up the Confederacy did not enjoy the unfettered ability to make their own laws. When a state law conflicted with the Confederate constitution or a law passed by the Confederate Congress, the state law would yield.