This year, in late June in South Carolina, we saw historically one of the most dramatic examples of this take place. Following the tragic murder of nine African Americans in church at a regular Wednesday evening prayer meeting, truly amazing things took place. First, all nine families of the slain publicly forgave the killer. And almost simultaneously, the public overwhelmingly reacted in an opposition to the Confederate flag continuing to be displayed on the Capitol grounds. The link tying these two events together was the killer’s use of the flag as a symbol motivating his action. Long a divisive issue, the flag had maintained significant public support. But now, almost overnight, huge numbers signed on to the online petition for removal. Numerous businesses, including national chain stores, announced they would no longer sell the flag, and public officials who were long defenders of the flag, were calling for its removal. South Carolina Republican Governor Haley led a bipartisan group of elected officials in announcing that the flag should come down. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, now a Presidential candidate, said publicly that knowing the nine families had forgiven the killer made it impossible for him to continue his support of the flag.
It was a dramatic example of citizens individually and collectively bringing dramatic change that no one could have predicted in advance. Obviously, in this case it took an unbelievable tragedy to spark the fire that swept the state and led to public officials quickly getting in line. Other changes needed can’t and shouldn’t wait for human tragedy to ignite action. We need citizens engaging in public dialogue on issues of importance, sharing changes for consideration, and building public support for change. Done in the public interest, it can help create an environment that influences public officials’ opinions as well as making it more politically attractive for them to be supportive.