Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Day I Changed My Mind About the Confederate Flag

I am a Yankee-- more specifically I am a Yankee from the Great State of Ohio. I have lived most of my life in Ohio, though I spent two years in North Carolina attending graduate school.

Growing up a Yankee I learned about the Civil War from a white northern perspective. We must always remember that when it comes to reading history, perspective is everything. I am thankful that my parents instilled in me a real vision of all persons created as equal in the image of God regardless of their skin color. I am thankful I did not grow up in a racist home. It was from that perspective that I understood the terrible and evil atrocity of slavery in America.

But my upbringing did not instill in me the knowledge of the subtleties of racism. I don't blame my parents for that. We lived in a white world, for the most part, and we were shielded from those subtle forms of racism that African Americans experienced regularly.

But as I got older and my world became larger, I began to realize that racism and racial discrimination were intrinsically embedded in American society in ways I had never realized. One aspect of that embedded racism was the symbolism displayed by society. There are more than a few of those symbols, but the one I speak of in this post is the Confederate battle flag.

As a young man, I began to hear the calls rising from some quarters demanding removal of that flag from government property because of its racist overtones. I confess at the time that I did not understand that perspective. Sure, I understood the connection between the Stars and Bars and the Civil War and the South, but I reasoned to myself that it was silly to get worked up over a symbol and not everyone, I thought, who has a Confederate flag on their bumper surely is a racist. I bought into the line from those who said that the Confederate flag was not a symbol of racism, but a display of southern heritage and pride, much like my fellow Buckeyes who fly the state flag of Ohio. That was my perspective until one day that I will never forget.

When our children were young (they are now grown and gone), we would vacation in the south--Virginia, North and South Carolina-- and we regularly visited historical sites. On one particular occasion we were in Charlottesville, Virginia visiting Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. We had given our children money for vacation to spend on whatever they wanted-- souvenirs, et al. At the time our son, Joshua was really into flags and had something of a collection. When we were in the gift shop after our visit to Jefferson's house, he naturally gravitated toward the display of various small flags. He pulled a Confederate battle flag from the kiosk and brought it to me to purchase. At that moment, I had an epiphany. As I looked at that miniature Stars and Bars, I was not sure I wanted him to have it... and as I stood there, I was not quite sure why. I hesitated for a moment and then told my son that he could not buy that flag. He would have to choose another.

I spent the rest of the day thinking about that moment attempting to make sense of my dis-ease. As I put words to my concerns, it was clear to me. I did not want my son owning a symbol that could not be divorced from the belief that certain people could be property. I could not let him display something that in its original context promoted legalized slavery to the extent that some people were willing to kill and be killed for its preservation. And I had to explain to him why I would not let him buy it. Today, Joshua is almost twenty-three, but he remembers that incident and is grateful for the lesson he learned.

Because of history, certain symbols get so wedded to ideas and movements that it becomes impossible to see the symbol and not think of those ideas and those events that made them prominent; and no amount of denial can change that. During the reign of the Roman empire countless individuals were crucified, but because of Christianity when someone sees a cross today, only one particular crucified individual is remembered. The swastika originally was a symbol of good fortune. It also was used in early Christian and Byzantine art-- a gammadion cross-- a symbol of the death of Jesus. But because of the Nazis employment of that symbol, it is not possible to see a swastika today without recalling to mind the evil of the Nazis. The swastika is forever embedded with that evil. Would anyone today seriously suggest trying to employ the swastika once again in our church sanctuaries as a symbol for Jesus' death?

After my new found epiphany, I began to do some research on the Confederate flag and that reinforced to me even more that it was impossible to separate America's history of slavery from that symbol. History has a way of dispelling our cover stories, and to say that the Confederate flag is only a symbol of Southern heritage is a cover story that can only be believed when one is in a state of denial. The attempt to divorce our symbols from the context that gives them meaning is to commit willful amnesia as to who we were as a people so that we can deny what we have inherited and must still confront today. To quote Civil War historian, William C. Davis, "Symbols matter. They say at a glimpse what words cannot, encapsulating beliefs and aspirations, prejudices and fears. Having no intrinsic value, they take meaning from the way we use them, changing over time along with our actions."

When we remove the symbols of our racist history from monumental status to the displays of museums, we are not denying our history, but putting them in their proper context. As displays, they tell the story of who we were; as monuments they proclaim who we still want to be. As displays they remind us of the values that our ancestors embraced; as monuments they continue to proclaim those values as somehow still important. When a community places a monument in public, it is a declaration of what the people who put it there value. No one should be duped into believing that a monument in public makes no moral claims. When communities continue to embrace those monuments, they are affirming the values of those who put them there in the first place.

We must remember the worst of our history. That does not mean we have to idolize it in the town square.

Symbols matter.


  1. So well articulated Allan! Thank you for this focus.

  2. Thank you, Allan, for this great piece. I too had a moment similar to yours recently. A truck at a city event had trinkets you could win for shooting down targets with a cork gun. My son won and got to pick a prize. There were plenty of little things covered in the Confederate Battle Flag. I told him, he could pick what he wanted but not anything with that symbol on it. Thank you for writing and sharing your perspective.

  3. Teriffic..As a native Mississippi boy, the KKK put a ass Whippen on me in McComb Ms. In the late 60's registering black folks..They called me a yankee as they punched and kicked..I felt sorry for them..I hate the rebel flag..have nothing with a logo ofmy home state that I love..Hope I live to see it changed.

    Yes, symbols do matter.

  5. Sorry but you sound like Mason,ugh!, lives matter too and so does morality and truth. Subjective half truths equate to logical falicies eventually becoming lies.
    When Linclon was asked "Why are you fighting this war?", His answer was "I can't afford to run the Government without those States!". The war for the North was both political and economic. The Emancipation Proclamation,while on the surface lordable had an ulterior purpose; To prevent England from attacking and by declaring Slavery unlawful, the British Government was forced to block the completion of three Ironclad Warships for the South. The CW was a needed event for Americans. It was the realignment of the Preamble and the Declaration of Independence which are still in place but was fialled by foolish men just like yourself.
    Michael Russo

    1. Michael,

      Thank you for posting and putting your complete ignorance on display for all to see.

  6. Very thoughtful post Allan, thank you

  7. I understand where you are coming from and I despise racism and slavery but I think many see those leaders as men who fought for other things, not slavery. I also wonder where we draw the line. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners, do we tear down their statues as well. This is an article that lists reasons the Civil War was fought:

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  9. Washington & Jefferson were slave owners, but they never chose to kill or die to preserve slavery. They are remembered for creating this nation, not for attempting to destroy it.

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  11. T-Hug,

    Thanks for your comments. The source you link to is an example of trying to take subnarratives and turn them into the narrative for understanding the Civil War. Sure, there was the issue of states rights etc., but the primary motivation for the Civil War was over the issue of preserving slavery, and no serious historian would suggest otherwise. Indeed, the only way to get the Southern states to ratify the Constitution in 1787 was to ignore the issue which some in the North did not want to do.

    As far as the slippery slope problem you mention: I am not fond of slippery slope arguments because any position on any issue can be turned into a slippery slope. Here is what I think is a well reasoned article on the slippery slope argument on this particular issue.

  12. Unknown,

    I deleted your comment because I do not allow for criticism from anonymous sources. If you are willing to put your name to your comment and post it again, I will be glad to keep it in the comment thread, no matter how ignorant it is.

  13. Mr. Bevere, I am humbled by the quiet eloquence by which you have explained your position. As an American living abroad and under a lot of distress seeing the events unfold at home, your words grant me a moment of peace. Thanks a lot for taking the time to write this out!

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  15. Great story Allen! As someone who has always said, that the flag should be left alone in honor of those who fought for the south, this has to be the best reasons I've ever heard against it. Thankfully, someone still has talent for reasonable debate! It's true, to a point about the monuments. Even Robert E. Lee, didn't think there should be any to the Southern cause. Perhaps these things should go to the museum of the confederacy, and then left alone. NOTHING should be banned in this nation, and never ripped down in the manner, than ISIS would use. But as someone who don't have a racist bone in My body and have all manners of Friends, I do have some understanding of their point of view. FYI: There where former slaves that fought for the south too.

  16. Anonymous,

    I deleted your comment. I do not allow for anonymous comments on this blog that engage in criticism. If you want to come out of the shadows and identify yourself and post your comment again, I will leave it in the comment thread.

  17. Very well written. Thanks for your perspective, Allan. I was also brought up in Ohio. After moving to California, I saw prejudices for the first time. As a country, we need to show the world that we have progressed from this. Those people,who are still living in the past, are ignorant and pull our standing down in the world. It starts at the top.....

  18. First off I want to say thank you to Allen for a very well thought out and written prospective,unfortunately in today's world thoughtful/respectful discussions are all but extinct. I totally agree that certain statues or monuments need to be addressed but how we address them I think is extremely important, removing hate with hate is not the answer and will never be the answer. Mobs of people tearing down and vandalizing property that is not theirs(no matter how offensive it is) is wrong and they should be punished for it. To me it's the same deal as the KKK having a rally or something we don't have to like it,heck you can even yell at them and hold your own counter rally if you want but they don't deserve to have their safety infringed on anymore than you or I. But the crowds and groups that are amassing to rip down these monuments feel as though their behaviour is justified and it's not. Not to mention that regardless how horrific history may be we should never attempt to erase it.
    Valeta Dalton