Can You Hear a Flag Coming Down?

Last week I was on a Skype call with a friend in Mozambique (I live in NYC but I am working with persons in sub-Saharan Africa on various initiatives) who asked me what I thought about the Confederate flag debate. It was just over 10 days ago that the Confederate flag was lowered and permanently removed from the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse, and she wanted to know what I thought about it. Mozambique was a Portuguese colony and like other nations, it struggled with its history, modernity and cultural icons. She explained to me that in the news she saw that the flag's removal symbolized the African American community's struggle as well as a major victory for the voices being heard.

As we spoke our conversation shifted from moral positions to, "what made the difference this time? Why did it work this time?" Her expertise is advocacy and messaging, so our discussion gravitated toward communication frameworks. I used the analogy of debate and public speaking to explain my thinking. Public speaking implicitly means there is an audience waiting to hear what you have to say, but that is not always the case. At times you ask your audience, "Do I have your attention?" The Charleston Church tragedy did that and, "Yes, you have our attention." Unfortunately, it seems that it takes a tragedy of this magnitude to raise the primacy of and simultaneously galvanize the public's attention.

The Charleston Church community was united in their message of forgiveness and reflection. Certainly this message is incredibly powerful and with the sincerity and unity of their message was unquestioned. The surviving relatives of the Charleston Church Nine, speaking as one voice of forgiveness allowed the dialogue to move to what the flag represented in the context of "now". They projected their voice and, as speech coaches say, their voices "filled the room". And literally on July 9th, South Carolina Republican Representative Jenny Anderson Horne in a seminal moment in the South Carolina Statehouse legislative debate filled the room when she said,

I'm sorry. I have heard enough about heritage. I have a heritage: I am a lifelong South Carolinian. I am a descendant of Jefferson Davis. OK? But that does not matter. It's not about Jenny Horne. It's about the people of South Carolina who have demanded that this symbol of hate come off of the Statehouse grounds


In an instant Representative Horne asserted her legitimacy on terms defined by her colleagues in opposition, empathized with their position while neutralizing the defense of "you will never know because you aren't..." and brought back the discourse from "me" to "we". As a speaker rarely will you find yourself as credentialed genetically or otherwise, as Rep. Horne was, but how adroitly she reframed the debate cannot be underappreciated. Perhaps a bigger lesson learned is make sure you know your opposition, who is sitting next to you and where not to go in a debate.

The momentum to reexamine and remove where the Confederate flag can be displayed on Federal and State grounds is growing. Concurrently, advocates of the flag have become more publicly demonstrative in their support. An argument by the flag supporters is that it represents a heritage and values not associated with slavery, but the history and honor of Southern pride. Removing or banning the flag is an example of political correctness run amok. Perhaps, but what political correctness also signifies is that an issue or language that symbolizes the issue has reached a critical mass in the way society communicates. And in this illustration you can not only see the flag coming down, you can hear it as well.