When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill to boot the Confederate flag from State House grounds earlier this month, it was a beautiful moment -- if decades late. State lawmakers finally acted out of revulsion from images of a confessed shooter posing with the Civil War relic before he shot to death nine African-American church parishioners June 17. Flag apologists lost their stomach for defending the banner as an emblem of states' rights.
The best part was that South Carolinians themselves had decided it was time for the bad flag to go.
The worst part is what is happening now as politicians in other states try to repeat that unique moment by passing their own anti-Confederate flag legislation. California lawmakers are poised to pass state Sen. Steve Glazer's bill that would ban naming any school, park, building or other piece of public property after generals or leaders of the Confederacy. Observe: Sacramento politicians had so much trouble finding Confederate flags to ban -- after they banned them from public buildings last year -- that they had to broaden the net to schools and buildings.
State lawmakers even have targeted teensy Fort Bragg, population 7,000. Glazer amended SB 539 to exempt city names, but then he wrote a letter urging Fort Bragg's mayor to change the city's name.
The Confederate flag is a poke in the eye to African-Americans. But how many Californians ever have been to Fort Bragg?
The California Legislative Black Caucus also urged Fort Bragg to change its name: "It is time that we move forward as a state and as a nation and stop commemorating those who defended the Confederacy and its cause." Problem: Fort Bragg was not named after Braxton Bragg to commemorate the Confederacy. Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor named a military outpost near Mendocino after his former commander before the Civil War even started. Later, to Bragg's undying shame, he became a Confederate general and the owner of 105 slaves.
"Why would I change the name?" Fort Bragg Mayor Dave Turner told me. "You really can't airbrush history. Or you shouldn't airbrush history." He added: If no city can be named after a former slaveholder, say goodbye to Washington, D.C.
Don't bring up George Washington's slaveholder history, Glazer told me. He advocates "a much more narrowly tailored" approach that focuses on men who engaged in "treasonous activities against the United States of America." Though his bill would ban Confederate names for schools and other public buildings, he's not forcing Fort Bragg or any other city to change.
He just wants to start a conversation -- that ends with Fort Bragg's changing a brand that until recently offended next to no one. It's a headline in search of a problem.
It's a crusade that ignores the sad lessons of history: 1) Politicians rarely say no to an opportunity to pick on lesser civil servants. 2) The more trivial the offense the easier it becomes for pandering politicians to rail against it. 3) Once they get rolling, purges are almost impossible to stop.