Byron Thomas is a senior and student senator at the University of South Carolina, where he is majoring in public relations and political science.

The Confederate flag is seen flying on the South Carolina Capitol grounds. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Four years ago, I became a national news story after I hung a Confederate flag in my dorm room window at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Controversy wasn’t my intention. For me and many Southerners, the flag celebrates my heritage and regional pride. One of my ancestors, Benjamin Thomas, was a black Confederate cook, and I do not want to turn my back on his service to the South. So I hang the flag in honor of his hard work and dedication to South Carolina during the Civil War.

My Confederate flag isn’t racist; after all, I am black. I’m also an American who strongly believes in the constitutional right to free speech. I fought back against the university’s demand that I take my flag down simply because others view it as a symbol of racism. I fought back against the racist interpretation of the flag and I won.

Now there’s a similar debate about the Confederate flag that flies over South Carolina’s statehouse. In the wake of the Charleston church shooting and pictures of the accused killer posing with the Confederate flag, people have demanded the flag be permanently removed from the statehouse grounds. I deeply respect and honor the nine people whose lives were lost in that church, who died with love in their hearts even though evil was among them. I felt that lowering the flag would give power to the racist terrorist who killed them. For a long time, it bothered me that every time someone raised the Confederate flag, someone else fought to have it removed. Racists hijacked the Confederate flag, and by effectively banning it on college campuses and government grounds, we would allow them to keep it.

But my perspective has changed. In her speech this week calling for state legislators to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds, Gov. Nikki Haley spoke of unity. She equally acknowledged the pain and the pride that the flag holds for South Carolinians. She noted how debate over the flag was hurting the state’s soul. “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” she said. “The fact that it causes pain to so many is enough to move it from the capitol grounds.”

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I love the Confederate flag, but I love South Carolina and its citizens more. While the flag’s existence on the statehouse grounds never offended me — and it still does not today — I can’t ignore the deep pain that it causes for many people in my state. I can’t ignore that many can’t love South Carolina as I do until the flag is removed. Continuing to let it fly at our capitol could incite the kind of protests and violence that have erupted in other states that ignore the pain of some of its citizens. I don’t want to see fires, looting and violence in our streets simply because we refuse to let go of symbols of our past. That kind of demonstration would be out of line with the friendly and patriotic character of South Carolina.

Taking down the Confederate flag does not mean supporters of the flag have lost. It’s a message that we refuse to allow the people who use the flag as a symbol of hate to divide us.

We may never completely agree on whether the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism or pride, and whether the Civil War was fought primarily over slavery or state’s rights. But South Carolinians should turn their focus to what we do agree on: that we are citizens of the greatest country in the world and the most patriotic state in the nation. As such, just two banners should fly over our statehouse grounds: the South Carolina flag and the American flag.

Regardless of what happens at the statehouse, I will continue to hang the Confederate flag in my apartment. Because of that decision, I’ve been called “an Uncle Tom” and “a sellout,” and accused of despising my race. Let me be clear: I love the skin that I am in. God gave me my skin color, but he also gave me freedom to think for myself and the right to stand by my beliefs. My skin color should not determine how I think, what I believe and what flags I hang in my home. This process should teach us all to respect the beliefs of others. I hope those who view the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate  will keep open minds to those who view it as a symbol of Southern heritage and history, regardless of their race.

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