During her reelection bid last year, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley criticized an opponent’s call to rid the capitol grounds of the Confederate battle flag, saying none of the corporate CEOs she had ever talked to had raised concerns about the rebel flag.
It appears that things may have changed. On Monday, three days after a young white supremacist was charged with killing nine people during Bible study at a historic black church in Charleston, Governor Haley reversed course, saying it’s time for the flag to go. She was not alone – as other Southern states and businesses have moved swiftly this week toward dropping the Confederate battle flag from store shelves and state grounds.
To be sure, the shock of the killings in the city where the Civil War began have caused many Americans to reassess the modern-day value and meaning of Confederate symbols, especially when, as is true in seven Southern states, they are sanctioned by the state.
But as the South Carolina legislature agreed on Tuesday to debate whether to heed Haley’s call, one factor, especially in the nation’s seventh-poorest state, is a growing chorus from business leaders, ranging from chambers of commerce to CEOs, urging lawmakers to take down the flag.
Indeed, economists and political scientists see parallels to the current groundswell of opinion surrounding the flag and the public and corporate backlash against Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act in March. (After critics accused politicians of trying to codify discrimination against gay couples, the state ended up modifying the law to include protections for LGBT Hoosiers.) In fact, many of the same CEOs, including the heads of Apple and Salesforce, have spoken out in favor of taking down the flag.
In both cases, businesses have shown an increasing willingness to wade into hot-button social issues – in a contrast with the staid, controversy-averse corporate image of the past. This is not a case of liberal ideals trumping the bottom line, economists say. Rather it’s a recognition of the importance of attracting both the talent and economic drawing power of Millennials, who marketers say seek out companies that reflect their social values. It appears that – at least in certain instances – social activism is good business.
“Corporate America recognizes that Millennials will have increasing spending power and financial authority over the next 30 years, and they’re, at least in the abstract, pro-gay marriage and anti-racism,” says Matthew Guterl, an American studies professor at Brown University in Rhode Island.\
The rise of the 80-million-strong Millennial generation also comes as white Southern conservatism appears to be on the wane, observers say.
“There’s huge competition between states like Georgia and South Carolina, which want to be hospitable to a diverse group of people and want to be attractive to businesses, which is why they’re increasingly realizing that having some kind of state endorsement of the Confederate flag is not getting them where they need to be in those two areas,” says Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the College of Charleston.
Several South Carolina chambers of commerce urged the legislature to take the flag down, saying in a statement: “Now is the time to do away with the things that divide us and prevent our state from moving forward," the Greenville, S.C., Chamber of Commerce, which helps recruit corporations to the region, wrote in a statement on Monday.
And in contrast to Haley’s experience prior to 2014, corporate America has taken notice of the battle flag, which became a symbol of the South's fight against integration in the civil rights era. Walmart, Sears, and eBay all announced Tuesday that they would no longer sell items with Confederate symbols. The Walmart decision, in particular, was significant, given that its core target region is the American South. Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote on Twitter that South Carolina should honor the victims “by removing the symbols & words that feed” racism. “Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol,” Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff added, also on Twitter.
After Haley’s press conference Monday, Starbucks issued a statement supporting her call for the flag to be taken down. “The empathy and spirit of forgiveness represented by the families of the victims … is a moving example of our common humanity and speaks to the way we can all heal and move forward together,” the company wrote. “[C]ertainly the decision to remove the Confederate Flag from South Carolina’s state grounds will help move us forward in this direction.”
Other Southern states are also weighing whether the battle flag might be more appropriate as a museum piece. Mississippi legislators this week have begun to push for a change to the state flag, which incorporates the battle flag as part of the design, and Virginia's governor called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from state license plates.
In South Carolina, 50 percent of residents – a historic low – want the flag to remain on the state capitol grounds, according to a poll conducted before the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Some Southerners are tired of clinging to the symbols of the past, historians say.
“There’s a huge majority of the people I’ve met, including people who were born here [in Mississippi] and grew up here, that are tired of the whole Confederate thing, and who don’t want to have anything to do with the flag or the Confederacy,” says Ole Miss economist Jon Moen in Oxford.
But others point out that it would be overstating things to directly link economic development to a flag, no matter how divisive.
Indeed, Southern boosters and politicians have worked hard to persuade investors that Confederate symbols have more to do with heritage than hate.
“Since the 1960s and even well into the early twentieth century, southern legislatures and boosters have been very adept at navigating any concerns about the region's racial history clouding or complicating decisions to set up shop here,” writes Darren Grem, a Southern studies professor at Ole Miss, and author of “Corporate Revivals: Big Business and the Making of the Evangelical Right,” in an e-mail.
He adds: “It's less to do with companies not arriving or economic investment not happening due to race or racism and more about subtle politics related to a fairly strident corporate welfare strategy, a weak union movement, and a business-friendly white conservative political structure that has brought clear economic ‘growth,’ albeit with uneven results for rich, middle class, and poor.”
Political experts suggest that at least part of the political calculation involved in whether to take down the flag includes the need to fight against the often-inaccurate perceptions of the South as a racist backwater.
“What does the South look like if you removed the flag and the symbology?” wonders Professor Guterl. “Does it become another version of the Pacific Northwest, not a region of the past that engaged in a treasonous war or slave-ocracy? In other words, if the South was defined by Elvis and mint juleps and Eudora Welty, would there be significantly more corporate investment?”