Editor's note: This editorial has been updated to reflect that the flag at issue is a Confederate battle flag, not the original Confederate state's flag referred to as the "Stars and Bars."
What to do about the Confederate flag on the grounds of South Carolina's capitol in Columbia is proving a tough call for most of the 2016 Republican presidential field since the massacre last week of nine black churchgoers by a young white man who allegedly claimed he wanted to start a race war and posted pictures of himself online surrounded by images of the Confederate battle flag and other racist emblems. But it shouldn't be.
The flag has long been a symbol of racial bigotry, intolerance and violence against blacks and other minorities, and the only appropriate place, if any, where it should ever be displayed is in a museum in which it can be viewed in the entirety of its context. It certainly shouldn't grace official government property. Yet who among the potential GOP presidential contenders has the political courage to say so? Few, judging by their behavior so far.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who announced his presidential candidacy earlier this month, issued a statement Monday urging that the flag be taken down. "I hope that, by removing the flag, we can take another step towards healing and recognition — and a sign that South Carolina is moving forward," he said. (South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday also called for the flag to be taken down.)
But the most prominent Republican to publicly and explicitly call for removing the flag from the state capitol grounds isn't even running for president this year. On Saturday, Mitt Romney, the GOP's standard bearer in the 2012 presidential race, issued an unequivocal condemnation of the insignia. "Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol," he tweeted. "To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims."
Mr. Romney never made a secret of his distaste for the Confederate flag. During the 2008 presidential primary season he told a debate audience "that's not a flag I recognize" and called on South Carolina officials to take it down. "That flag, frankly, is divisive, and it shouldn't be shown," he said.
That stance in part caused him to lose South Carolina's first-in-the-South GOP presidential primary that year to Sen. John McCain, who also had initially opposed the flag as "a symbol of racism" but later reversed himself in a statement in which he called the flag "a symbol of heritage" for white South Carolinians. Mr. McCain later admitted fearing he would lose the election if he expressed his true feelings about the flag and called his decision not to criticize it one of the worst of his career.
Aside from Mr. Graham, the closest any of the other current Republican contenders has come to squarely addressing the issue is a statement from Jeb Bush noting that the Confederate flag was removed from state grounds when he was governor of Florida. He expressed faith that South Carolina leaders would "do the right thing" without saying what that was.
Republicans know they need to increase their share of minority voters if they are to win the presidency in the 2016 general election. Yet none of the candidates — or would-be candidates — wants to alienate conservative white voters in the state's GOP presidential primary next year. Even after pictures of the suspect in the case, Dylann Roof, surfaced Saturday showing him holding a gun and a Confederate flag, none of the candidates who appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows was willing to flatly declare whether the flag should continue to fly in the state capitol.
(Democratic presidential contenders, including former Gov. Martin O'Malley, have called for the flag to be removed.)
It's not just African-Americans who are offended by the flag. Its display implicitly denigrates the members of every minority group — Jews, Catholics, immigrants and so on — who historically were targeted by hate groups bent on denying them a place in American society. One can no more separate the meaning of the Confederate flag from that shameful history today than one could regard the Nazi hooked cross as merely as an ancient Buddhist or Hindu religious symbol.
South Carolina isn't the only state that is coping with how to deal with this ugly symbol of the past. Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration's issues vanity license plates emblazoned with it. Last week the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot be compelled to issue such tags on First Amendment grounds because whatever is on them is a form of state speech, not private expression. We hope that decision will encourage lawmakers in Annapolis to finally ban the display of this hurtful symbol on state plates, as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake encouraged them to do today .
The standard line from Republican presidential candidates is that the display of the Confederate flag on the grounds of South Carolina's capitol is a decision for South Carolina to make. Of course it is. Nobody is suggesting the federal government could or would force state leaders to take it down. What those who are asking the question of the Republican contenders want to know is whether they understand the hateful history the flag represents and whether they have the guts to say so, and the answers to both of those questions are germane to the decision the rest of us will have to make about who is fit to lead this country.