Challenging Symbols

Following the mass shooting at the Mother Emanuel Church, investigations into the identity of the shooter led to the discovery of Dylann Roof’s website, which included a manifesto of his prejudiced beliefs and images of him posing with a Confederate flag, as well as other symbols connected to white supremacy. These images and manifesto, combined with racially derogatory statements that Roof reportedly made during the shooting, led to a massive outcry not only against his attack, but also against the legacy and continued presence of racial prejudice and violence in the United States.

Through media articles, social media, petitions, marches, and rallies, many began calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from government buildings and institutions throughout the U.S. South. This public outcry particularly focused on demanding that South Carolina politicians remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House. Proponents for the flag’s removal argued that the dominant reason the Confederacy fought in the U.S. Civil War was to preserve the enslavement of African Americans. In addition, since the Civil War, vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) embraced the Confederate flag as a symbol of white supremacy. The Klan’s ideology and practices of racial violence still influence many white supremacist groups and individuals, including Dylann Roof.

The Confederate flag bill waiting for South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's signature with nine pens representing the nine killed in the Emanuel AME Church shooting, photograph by Zach Pipin, July 10, 2015, Columbia, South Carolina.

The Confederate flag bill waiting for South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's signature with nine pens representing the nine killed in the Emanuel AME Church shooting, photograph by Zach Pipin, July 10, 2015, Columbia, South Carolina.

Since 2000, the Confederate battle flag waved beside a Confederate soldier statue prominently located in front of the South Carolina State House, at a major intersection in the state's capital of Columbia. Before that time, the Confederate flag flew on top of the dome on the state's capital building, along with the United States flag and the South Carolina state flag. In 1962, an all-white state legislature voted to place the flag in this prominent location amidst Civil War Centennial events and, particularly noteworthy, during the growing civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. By the 1990s, a block of white legislators repeatedly refused to remove the flag from the dome amidst ongoing protests, including an economic boycott imposed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that cost the state’s tourism industry millions of dollars. On July 1, 2000, in a ceremony attended by thousands, the state’s leaders enacted a compromise that moved the Confederate flag from the State House dome to the nearby Confederate soldier statue. Fifteen years later, in response to the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel, another ceremony took place on July 10, 2015, after state leaders voted to remove the flag entirely from the grounds of the South Carolina State House. In front of a large crowd, the South Carolina State Highway Honor Guard took the Confederate flag down from a flag pole beside the soldier statue, and officials later dismantled the flag pole entirely. State officials relocated the flag to the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia.

In addition to protests at the South Carolina State House and other government buildings, the shooting at the Mother Emanuel Church reinvigorated efforts by activists throughout the U.S. South to advocate for the removal or reinterpretation of Confederate symbols in various forms, from statues and flags in public spaces to consumer goods and souvenir items. In response, retailers such as Wal-Mart and Amazon stopped selling the Confederate battle flag, and leaders in various southern states began exploring options for removing or reinterpreting Confederate monuments and symbols.  

South Carolina law enforcement removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds, photograph by Sean Rayford / Getty Images, July 10, 2015, Columbia, South Carolina.