Re-Writing History: The Confederate Flag and Southern Culture

It was something of a surreal moment. My sister and her family moved from Pennsylvania to South Carolina. I think the year was 1979. My nephew, no more than 8 years old at the time, when visiting my parent’s home for Christmas reported what he learned in school. He said full of enthusiasm: “Those Yankees invaded and took our property and freedom.” There was a stunned silence in the room. I remember starting to say, “You know that we are Yankees,” but my mother, wanting to maintain the holiday mood, used a hand motion to cut me off and asked about the flowers in South Carolina.

For four years I’ve lived in Atlanta. I’ve met many people. But I’m aware that there remains a real divide between North and South. I realized about a year ago that my new friends in Atlanta are transplants from the North like me. I’ve met many people who grew up in the South. I’ve invited people to dinners and parties. Two colleagues who pastor in the area often tell me that we should meet for lunch or that I should come over for dinner. But when I try to follow through and set-up a social meeting, I’m met with silence. There’s no direct rejection. It’s a polite lack of response that’s paired with a friendly looking smile.

A few weeks ago, I visited with a colleague who pastors a major church in Pittsburgh. He spoke of officiating a wedding some time ago in the Atlanta area. He concluded his comments by saying, “I just don’t get the inscrutable ways of Southerners.”

I’m not attempting to sound negative about Southerners. What I’m trying to say is that there is a very real cultural gulf that’s difficult to navigate. I presume that some Southerners find me to be too direct if not plainly rude. While I can understand that the values of Southern hospitality and gentility mean to always be kind and friendly with people, I honestly don’t know how to distinguish between authentic exchanges meant to build a friendship versus a gentile social grace.

The chasm deepens even more when it comes to the Civil War and the Confederacy. Those outside of the South may not be aware that the Civil War is more commonly called “the War of Northern Aggression” in the South. I’ve heard many people speak with pride about the role their grandparents and great-grandparents played in the war. There is a basic understanding that the Union of the United States infringed on State’s rights and that the Union stole property from the South. As I’ve researched historical documents to gain a better understanding of this State’s rights issue, I’ve found it clearly stated in declarations forming the Confederacy that the State’s rights in question were about the establishment of slavery and that the property stolen were slaves.

Here’s a section of one such document: Confederate States of America – Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union from April 26, 1852:

“These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.
“We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

I live about a block from a Confederate cemetery. The cemetery is located in a wooden area between two neighborhoods where a majority of the residents are middle class African-Americans. At times when I walk through the neighborhood, I reflect on the irony of that those men fought and died to preserve slavery now they lay buried among the descendants of former slaves.

I also see throughout Georgia people flying the Confederate flag, affixing bumper stickers to cars and motorcycles, or wearing it as an emblem on their clothing. I’m told that it’s part of the culture. I’m told it’s a symbol or pride and self-determination. I’m told that people’s ancestors proudly died for that flag.

On some level, I respect that people fought and died for their convictions. The war was horribly brutal. It tore apart the country, families, and religious denominations and other social institutions. But I also cannot escape the reality that the war was fought to preserve slavery. The war was an act of rebellion against the country and based on racism and the conviction that some were created as so inferior that they could not be viewed as a person. The Confederate flag is the remaining official symbol of that racism and social stereo-typing that supported that worldview.

Were there Northerners who also made money from slavery? Of course there were. Were there Northerners who helped to build and enforce the slave trade of the South. Indeed, there were. But at a critical time there came the awareness that is was morally wrong for one person to own and enslave another. Such practices would have no place in the United States.

Today, the Confederate flag is flown from homes and yards near my boyhood home in Pennsylvania. It’s no longer just part of Southern culture. It remains a symbol of racism and rebellion against the principles of the United States Constitution. As a moral issue, I believe it’s time for people who believe that we are all created equal to call for the accountability of those who cling to symbols of racism and beliefs that only create division. It’s time to take down the Confederate flag and to honestly discuss the ways racism continues to be perpetrated in the United States. Taking down Confederate flags will not end racism. However, the flag is a powerful symbol of racism, rebellion, and treason against the United States. The flag has no place in American life today.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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