The just elapsed sesquicentennial of the Civil War encouraged a reconsideration of the national tragedy as distant history. And yet it was only in recent weeks, 150 years and two months after the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox Court House, that the flag of that force was lowered from many places of honor across the United States.
The blue saltire with 13 white stars on a field of red was never the official flag of the Confederacy, but the banner of that army led by Robert E. Lee, underscoring its connection to an insurrection waged to preserve slavery at a cost of more than 600,000 lives.
The nine lives taken in a Charleston church last month were an impossible price for a symbolic and belated retreat from a long-lost cause. But the killer who bore the standard, along with those of racist African regimes, left no room for reinterpretation. So the flag began falling from Southern statehouses and monuments, retail shelves and websites, and, strangely enough, a shrine to a Philadelphia sandwich monger.
The latter featured a motorcycle bearing the Confederate symbol designed for the late xenophobic owner of Geno's Steaks, whose only Southern connection was to South Philadelphia - solid Union ground by any historical reckoning. Of course, the battle flag's implications often have nothing to do with Southern history, as countless Northern and ahistorical displays confirm. The flag wasn't hoisted over the South Carolina statehouse until the civil rights era, a century postbellum.
Lowering flags won't cure bigotry any more than raising them caused it. But official elevation of a symbol of treason and racism certainly promotes tolerance of both. Its removal from capitols in Alabama and possibly South Carolina should lead the way for other governments to relinquish antique attachments. The Washington Post recently noted that seven state flags still incorporate Confederate symbols, while the South abounds with dubious tributes in the form of streets, schools, and other public works. The address of Emanuel A.M.E Church, the scene of last month's murders, is on Calhoun Street, named for an avid defender of slavery and nullification, the theory that foreshadowed secession.
Governments should not attempt to cleanse museums or battlefields of Civil War history. Nor should they infringe on private expression, no matter how wrongheaded. But it's easy to distinguish both from state-sanctioned glorification of rebellion and racism.