In the wake of the Charleston shootings, some Southern states are rethinking their relationship to the Confederate flag. Alabama quietly took down flags on its state capitol grounds. Other states are making efforts to remove it from license plates. Meanwhile, retailers such as Walmart have stopped selling items with the flag on them.
It’s not just the flag that people are reconsidering. Countless streets, parks, and public monuments honor heroes of the Confederacy. Some of those names and symbols have also come under attack. Recently, Memphis, Tennessee, decided to take down a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate commander and the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
School names are also being examined. According to one count, 188 public schools in the U.S. are named for Confederate figures.
At one, J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, Virginia, students have circulated a petition to rename the school, which honors a famed Confederate cavalry officer. The petition states that Confederate “names and themes on government buildings” benefit only “21st century White Supremacists.” Matt Levi, a teacher at the school, says it was purposely named for Stuart in 1959 as part of Virginia’s so-called Massive Resistance to integration.
Afia Kwarteng, who recently graduated from Stuart, signed the petition. “As a black student, I didn’t like attending a school named after someone who was for enslaving and oppressing my people,” she says.
But Tony Konjevoda—another Stuart alumnus, who is white— thinks society needs to “move on” from trying to erase every trace of the Confederacy. Slavery was wrong, he says, but “changing the name will do nothing to change history or make amends.”
Many other Southerners agree: You can’t wipe the past clean. “George Washington owned slaves,” a great-great grandson of Nathan Bedford Forrest recently told a reporter. “Are you going to take him off the dollar bill?”
Ben Jones, a former U.S. congressman from Georgia, calls the campaign of change a “feeding frenzy.” It “will not erase any scars nor heal any wounds,” he wrote in USA Today.
Other critics warn about endangering free speech. Experts say that an individual flying a Confederate flag on private property such as a lawn or a car antenna is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. But when is displaying the flag in public an act of free speech, and when can authorities ban it as offensive? That can be tricky.
Texas has been struggling with this issue. The state allows many different specialty license plates. But when it rejected a design with the Confederate flag, the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June sided with Texas. The plates are government property, said the Court—and Texas can reject any featuring the flag.
Free-speech advocates disagreed with the ruling. Even the American Civil Liberties Union, a liberal legal-rights group that supported taking down the South Carolina flag, said the Court had gone too far. “When the state opens up a platform for private speech, it can’t pick and choose who gets to speak,” one ACLU attorney wrote.