First, full disclosure. I was born and raised in the South in a medium-sized city in Arkansas. My upbringing was typical of the 1950s South. With a maternal family name of Lee, we were steeped in Civil War history and injected with Old South traditions and pride. The absolute segregation of African-Americans was simply the “unquestioned way it is,” rarely openly discussed but clearly in evidence in the Black side of town, the “White/Colored” door signs, and the separated facilities (e.g. schools, movie houses, swimming pools, parks). My extended family employed African-Americans for child-rearing, domestic help, and yard maintenance. Our extended time together made them almost “family,” but they most certainly were not. There was always a certain line of familiarity never to be crossed by either side. Black voting and politics were nonexistent. When I was a teenager, I was shocked to find out that some “special rules” also applied to white Catholics and Jews. The doors of doubt were thusly opened slightly; the questions slowly began.
Arkansas was the jumping off point for school desegregation and the ‘60s civil rights battlegrounds. The forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock hit my town like a bombshell. To their lasting credit, the town fathers saw the handwriting on the wall and, anger and panic aside, quietly went about desegregation: from the first grade, one subsequent grade added each year. We never made the headlines; violence was averted. Structural change came, even if begrudgingly, even if changes in attitudes and perspectives lagged behind.
I left Arkansas at 21, and spent the rest of my adult life in Massachusetts/New England until returning to the South (North Carolina) ten years ago. Trying to answer the many questions from “outsiders” during the turbulent ‘60s, questions I had never thought to ask, turned out to be the only way I was fully able to understand what “being Southern” really meant. That experience steadily changed my perspective dramatically, even if my affection remained intact. But one insight I also learned: a Southerner can never explain his/her culture to a non-Southerner. The starting points for such a discussion are simply too far apart.
A non-Southerner sees the South in 1-1 relationship to a specific topic of interest, typically slavery / segregation / civil rights. The Southerner sees the culture as one complete entity made up of many inseparable facets, as if looking at many rich colors through a prism. Each Southerner picks one’s own combination of facets that drives him/her, which makes the language of conversation into a near-incomprehensible verbal maze to try to decipher.
For some, “Southern Heritage” means a longing for the ante-bellum South lifestyle and social manners glorified in “Gone With The Wind,” even though such plantation excess was available only to the small minority of wealthy society. For some, it refers to the Southern Greek Revival appreciation for education, intellect, art, architecture, philosophy, politics and thought that produced four of our first six Presidents. For some, it refers to the agriculture-based economy, with slavery just a necessary dependency. (Only some Southerners could afford to own slaves themselves, but the others still depended upon the plantation economy for their income and so the economic base had to be defended.) For some, it refers to the Confederate nation and government, an in-your-face defiant statement personifying “states’ rights over federal” that reflects long suspicions going back to the Constitutional Convention itself. For many, it refers to the military campaigns of the Civil War, and homage to the tactics, valor, courage and sacrifices of real family ancestors fighting against overwhelmingly superior odds – regardless of the reasons for which they fought. For some, it is redressing the destruction of Southern society in the Reconstruction Period by a punitive North in spite of Lincoln’s plan for forgiveness and reunification. The epithet “damn Yankee” was taught to every schoolboy.
Yet the indefensible reality of slavery complicates the whole Heritage. There are very few today who claim that slavery was a good or needed thing. The post-reconstruction period proved that the agricultural economy did not really need it. The undeniable truth is that Southern slavery – the absolute control by one individual over another, enforced by extreme physical torture and mental abuse – is a major blot on Southern Heritage that is indefensible today. But in my childhood, slavery and Blacks were never talked about. And it substantially remains in the shadows today, a topic polite ladies and gentlemen do not explore in honest discussion. It needs conversation. It still needs further redressing.
The Southern Heritage and Civil War that we seek to respect and honor ended in April 1865. 150 years ago. Yet some Southerners today seem to still seek to reverse the finality of Appomattox and continue fighting that war. They fight not on battlefields but in the legislatures and on social fronts, all while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the Stars and Stripes and the USA. It is a schizophrenia, a paradox, that lives comfortably in the heart of a Southerner that an outsider can never quite comprehend.
The flag that we are debating today is not the flag of the Confederate nation. It was the battlefield flag of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, designed to distinguish it clearly from the North’s Stars and Stripes in the chaos of the battlefield. But for over a century it has been appropriated for causes well beyond its original purpose. It was the flag flown when denying Blacks their new constitutional rights granted after the Civil War ended. It was the flag flown at KKK demonstrations, at cross burnings, and at lynchings. It was the flag that lined the streets in Birmingham and Selma, and when attacking the Freedom Ride buses. It was the flag that hung over too-many assassinations, bombings and killings of the 1960s, and silenced all-White juries into no justice rendered. Today the flag is used on apparel and license plates to apparently self-proclaim “I am a bad-boy rebel,” and it is even NASCAR’s unofficial sports flag! Are those the battles and causes and people that we are seeking to honor by flying that flag on public buildings across the South? Today, 20% of the population of the Old Confederacy states are African-Americans (as high as 37% in Mississippi). Are they not “Southerners” also, or are “Southerners” inherently White-only? Do we continue to ignore and deny African-Americans their existence and birthright just as the Founding Fathers did in their Constitution? If all of our great-great-grandparents were Black slaves, would we even be having this conversation now?
We need to remember our history, learn from our history, honor our history. But the sins of fathers should not be passed to their children, and the children should not take up the cause of their fathers. We have to acknowledge ALL of our history, not just the selected parts, and see our ancestors in the full light of their times. So we need to keep our statues and monuments. We need to preserve our flags in the archives and museums in which all history is ultimately destined to lie, restoring the flag from being an misappropriated symbol of hate to its rightful symbol of valor. We need to honor all of our citizens in our public places, not just some of them, remaining scrupulously neutral toward all. We need to keep the better parts of our heritage in our hearts, the lesser parts in our consciences. Respecting and honoring the past does not require us to live in the past.
In my senior year high school yearbook, there is a picture of me standing beneath a Confederate battle flag being waved to rally a cheering home crowd attending a Friday night football game. I get all the things that flag has meant to so many. But that was a fall night in 1962. 53 years ago. It is now 2015. The world has changed dramatically. For the better. It is time to catch up fully with those changes. It is time for all of us to move on. In so doing, I am fully confident that my great-great-grandfather, Samuel Carroll Lee, a Confederate soldier from Tennessee, would be very proud of us all.
© 2015 Randy Bell www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com