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Civil Rights Activist: Battle Flag Debate Distracts From Real Race Issues

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Long-time civil rights advocate Mary Frances Berry says while taking down this flag has symbolic power, much more needs to be done. And she joins us now from Washington, D.C. Welcome to the show.

MARY FRANCES BERRY: Thank you very much for having me.

MCEVERS: First, can you talk about the symbolic power you've written about in taking down the flag? What does the flag stand for to you?

BERRY: Well, the flag stands for a belief that the Civil War was about something other than slavery and racism, and that people have bitter memories of a war between the states or the War for Southern Independence as some people call it in Nashville, Tenn., where I'm from. And they won't let go of that notion, which has contributed to the perpetuation of race problems in this country.

And so that's what the flag, I think, means. And I think it probably meant something like that to the assailant who shot those people and killed them in Charleston and other people. But what it means in taking it down is it means that at least one symbol of the Confederacy and that kind of attitude has been dispatched.

MCEVERS: You've written that even though politicians and businesses are beginning to, as you say, divest themselves from these symbols, that this is really a diversion. What do you mean when you say that?

BERRY: Well, the emphasis on the flag and the monuments and the symbols is a diversion when it takes away from doing something positive about the race and connected economic issues that exist in this country. I mean, it's easy for a business to say, you know, we won't sell any more Confederate flags or whatever or for people to get up on the floor of the legislature and say let's change the name of Jeff. Davis Boulevard to, I don't know, some other Boulevard - Calvin Coolidge or somebody.

MCEVERS: Right.

BERRY: But it would be much more effective and solve the problems which the symbols stand for if we were to have some practical solutions.

MCEVERS: So what do you propose specifically that people should do?

BERRY: Well, one thing I was hoping, that the South Carolina legislature, instead of just taking the flag down, would pass Sen. Pinckney's bill. He was the senator who was killed - the pastor - which is for minimum wage in the state. The state doesn't have a minimum wage. And one of the things that he advocated strongly - one of his bills in the Senate - was that a bill be passed. He talked eloquently about his mother, who worked at so many jobs for little money over the years to support him and their kids, and he pleaded for that bill. I think it would be wonderful if the South Carolina legislature passed such a bill.

There are all kinds of things that can be done. Some people have given money anonymously as contributions. I know in South Carolina, they gave some to the church. I think that's important. But I also think that our government and our policymakers play a role and that the politicians shouldn't be let off the hook. After they've made all the speeches about the flag and, you know, this thing has been rung dry, they ought to be making some proposals about something to alleviate the problems.

MCEVERS: You've been a civil rights advocate for a long time. How would you describe this moment?

BERRY: In this country, many people thought that with President Obama getting elected and now, you know, re-elected, that we'd become post-racial and all race problems would disappear, which was naive. Unfortunately, we have seen retrogression in a lot of areas, in particular with police-community relations and with the racial attitudes in all the surveys that are being done and the like, so that this is a disappointing period in the whole struggle for civil rights around questions of race.

MCEVERS: Mary Frances Berry - she is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights - thank you very much.

BERRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.