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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)
Tuesday, June 16, 2020
The Day I Changed My Mind About the Confederate Flag
I have told this story before, but once again it seems appropriate in these times.
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 for 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 twenty-five, 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 or on government property.
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My "wake-up call" happened on a trip to Vietnam in 2005. As I rode around southern Vietnam with my friends who had come to the US in 1993 as Amer-Asian refugees, I kept seeing cemeteries that were very orderly and well-kept with an impressive archway over the entrance. I asked my friends - who had been born in South Vietnam - who was buried in those cemeteries, and they said it was people in the Vietnamese military. I asked if any of their relatives were in such a cemetery, and they told me "no", that the cemeteries were only Vietnamese who had fought for North Vietnam. Anyone who had died fighting for South Vietnam would have been buried in a family grave plot, but not in one of these fine military cemeteries. That caused me to think, "And yet, in the US, many in the South think nothing of celebrating and honoring those who fought for the Confederacy, even to the point of putting up statues of their 'heroes'." I also reflected on the old saw that "the victors write the history"; and I wondered how it was that those who idealized the Confederacy could be allowed to consider themselves "victors". I knew then that something needed to change in the US, because the idolization of the Confederacy through waving and displaying the Confederate battle flag and erecting monuments to Confederate "heroes" signaled a deep sickness within the American polity, that I later realized was a source of our political polarization and of the perpetuation of white supremacy and racism in our country.
Thank you, Dr. Bevere. Well said!
Thanks for the great parallel story. It reinforces the point being made.
Well said! Thanks Allen.
There is so much more to the civil war than just a laser focus on racism. As a child I was taken to many battle fields. From that I have learned the great expense of this war. I chose to honor brave men that had incredible patriotism to what they believed on both sides.
I refuse to fall into a single narrative of this incredible war and stand in honor of the sacrifices that were made.
Confederates want to remind themselves of who they were so as not to change who they are. It is the same mindset (spirit of rebellion) with the Blond hair blue eye Jesus. My Lord was not a Jew (no "J" in the Greek / Hebrew Alphabet) but Hebrew and all were a people of color. Don't get it Twisted, God will not be mocked!!! If you need assistance with your Historical analysis 😉 call 423-967-2545. Grace and Peace and much love.
You can honor your war dead without embracing the idiot ideology they killed themselves for.
Japan and Germany have figured this out, so why not our South?
This is a letter to the editor I wrote 2/27/2019 in my local paper near Asheville North Carolina:
Problems with the Confederate Flag
I would like to thank the Transylvania Times for the recent 2 part editorial "Only One Flag". It seems to me, and I may be wrong, that the problem many people have with the Confederate flag is not primarily with the 3 or 4 years it was used as a battle flag by the brave Southern soldiers during the Civil War. The main problem is how it has been used by the cowardly Ku Klux Klan, hiding behind white sheets, terrorizing and murdering not only African-Americans but also fair minded white Southerners. Another problem with the Confederate Flag is how it has been used by the Segregationists to spread their poisonous lies that say African-Americans are inherently inferior.
The letter entitled "Dishonor To All Veterans" calls the NAACP a "radical group" with the "intent to rewrite history to fit their agenda". The author also claims "The NAACP is doing more harm regarding racial issues and fostering division by their attempts to dishonor all southern ancestors". As a former County Commissioner, the author should know what an agenda is. So what is the agenda of the NAACP?
The NAACP was founded after the 1908 riot in Springfield Illinois. A lynch mob attacked the African-American community when 2 black men were arrested on the charges of rape. After the Illinois State Militia prevented the lynching, the trial exonerated one of the men and found him innocent. Part of the 'radical agenda' of the NAACP has been to prevent the lynching of innocent black men.
I will never forget the first time I saw a "souvenir postcard" of a lynching with teenagers having a party under a black man hanging from a tree. The Confederate flag was proudly flying behind them. Many of these “souvenir postcards” are of black men mutilated and hanged because they were accused of raping a white woman.
Today, “a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white person accused of sexual assault” according to Michigan State University report "Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States” This is based on exonerations, not technicalities. That means the real rapist was free to continue raping women because of the prejudice of the police and the court system.
I have heard that some people believe that the NAACP is some kind of “leftist conspiracy” group. The truth is that it is a non-partisan group of people from all races working together. In fact, one of the founding members was a Republican white woman, Mary White Ovington, who served as secretary of the NAACP for 38 years.
There are many, many wonderful things about Southern culture and heritage. The Confederate flag is not one of them.
Just finishing watching a three part series on the history channel re: General Grant and what he did freeing the slaves with help from President Lincoln. Your message really enlighten me as you were straight on about the confederate flag Allen. I encourage anyone who has the History Channel to take time and view this series.
So, do you also honor the sacrifices German an Italian and Japanese soldiers, sailors and airman made as they killed Americans and their allies? That would be consistent with your honoring Confederate soldiers who were killing Americans who did not seek to destroy their country as the Confederate soldiers were trying to do.
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