Last evening, Stephen Colbert, the outgoing host of “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central and the soon to be host of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on CBS, walked with Charleston residents in the Unity March in response to last week’s horrific shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Colbert grew up in Charleston, on James Island, the youngest of 11 children; his older sister Elizabeth, you may remember, was the Democratic nominee for a vacant House seat in 2013.
Colbert also famously attempted to run for president in South Carolina back in 2012 and has remained close to South Carolina, even giving a $800,000 donation to the state’s school system earlier this year.
In the wake of the shootings, the confederate flag hanging across from South Carolina's State House has become the state's central issue—but Colbert has not added his voice to the debate. But he has been leading the public conversation about the confederate flag for almost 15 years now. When Northerners talk about the confederate flag, it is from a place of bafflement that any state could ever consider it in a state courthouse; Colbert, with his close ties to the region, has always felt it more intimately.
His first mention of the controversy came all the way back in April 2001, when he was a correspondent on “The Daily Show.” He filed a “report” to Jon Stewart about the Mississippi flag ultimately asserting that the middle ground on the issue was that the Confederate flag was “a proud symbol of a shameful heritage of hate.”
(It is worth noting that, more than 14 years later, the confederate symbol is still on the Mississippi flag.)
Colbert was more comfortable with his South Carolina heritage by 2008, when he was hosting his own show. Here, he uses his “The Word” segment to point out the problematic ideology of the “Sons of Confederate Veterans,” who hoisted a massive confederate flag over a freeway in Tampa. His ironic right-wing character actually says the phrase, “Why should the confederate flag have to sit on the back of the flag bus?”
My favorite is still his fisking of the Brad Paisley's “Accidental Racist” song, which features Paisley claiming the Confederate flag only means he’s a Skynyrd fan. As Colbert puts it: “Just like a burning cross just means you’re a Madonna fan.”
Colbert is one of the most recognizable South Carolinians in America, and if this issue isn’t settled by the time his new show debuts in September, it's liable to become a central theme.
CORRECTION: This story was updated to correct the office Colbert's sister ran for in 2013.