Sunday, June 21, 2015

Take It Down, Pt 1

This last Saturday evening, June 20th, I attended a rally on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds demanding that the Confederate flag be removed from the SC statehouse grounds. It used to fly prominently on the dome of the Statehouse before a compromise in the year 2000 removed it from the Statehouse and placed it in its present spot, displayed by a larger Confederate memorial monument in front of the Statehouse. This has always been and continues to be a very polarizing issue for SC. This current push is in reaction to the gunman who killed 9 members of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Images of the gunman waving the Confederate flag have appeared in the media and prompted renewed calls for the flag to removed.

When I got home that evening, I signed an online petition in support of removing the flag, and subsequently posted the link to the petition on my Facebook page. Soon after, I received a comment asking a legitimate question:

“Why take it down? When has a flag ever harmed anyone?”

This question kicked off a long, passionate debate, one that reflected all sides of the issue and one that thankfully remained civil. I am not going post the content of the debate here, but I do want to share a paraphrased summary of my personal comments and opinions in regards to this issue.

So, let’s again revisit the question: “Why take it down? When has a flag ever harmed anyone?

I don't believe a flag itself has ever hurt anyone. But a flag by its very nature is symbolic, representing the values of those that fly its colors. This particular flag flew over an especially troubling era in our nation's history and more recently has been repurposed in other troubling ways by certain segments of our population. The flag and what it represented has a rightful place in our country's history, but it should not be celebrated on the SC statehouse grounds or any other government building. It should be in museums, the very institutions created to celebrate and record our heritage and history.

It should be noted that the US flag has ALSO flown over a plethora of very troubling events in our history. That said, the Confederacy lost. The USA is still our country, a work in progress, and not a lost cause. Unsavory history and all, the US is our country so we honor our flag as we make our way forward as a nation. The Confederacy is an also-ran, one for the history books. Its flags and other symbols should be a part of our past, not our present or our future. It should not fly on government buildings.

This flag upsets lots of people for very legitimate reasons. Honestly, the sight of the flag doesn't personally upset me; I've seen it my whole life and barely even register it when I see it. However, I choose to listen to the voices of my friends, neighbors, and colleagues who feel that it legitimizes systemic discrimination. When a sizable chunk of our population feels not just uncomfortable but scared when they see it, we should respect that and take it down. People are still free to fly it on their personal property or their businesses. I just feel it has no place still representing our state. I certainly don't need it to represent any values I may hold.

You cannot separate the Confederacy and state's rights from the fact that the Secessionist states who flew this particular flag were fighting to protect the existing of a slave regime. I'm born and bred in Mississippi and live in South Carolina right now. I've lived almost my whole life in the South, and I love the South. I get that the Civil War was more nuanced than "pro-slave, anti-slave." But you just can't separate slavery from the cause. The South tried to protect its way of life which was fundamentally based on the most severely unjust system possible. And thank God the South lost. 

Removing the flag is the easy part of the much larger task of addressing all the social ills we face. But if the flag is still held up by many as an important symbol of Southern heritage, then certainly it must be recognized equally maintain power as a negative image as well. Surely the removal of the flag from government buildings can also be a very meaningful symbolic act in and of itself. Removing the flag won't necessarily change a thing, but it’s a hell of a nice gesture with which to start.

[At this point in the conversation, someone stated that to disavow the Confederate flag was disrespectful to the memory of many people’s Confederate ancestors that fought under its colors. The individual stated that the Civil War was not about slavery, but rather was about states’ rights and individuals defending their lands and families.]

I think most Southern folks with deep roots in the South have confederate ancestors. I am related to Confederate soldiers and had relatives that were indeed slave owners. We have handwritten letters in our family from Confederate camps, as well as copies of legal documents that show the names and genders of the slaves my relatives owned, listed on the same list as furniture and other property. I think this stuff is super cool to look at and I'm glad we have it. It's a fascinating glimpse at the history of the South and my own family history. I didn't know my relatives, but I like to think these were noble men.

That said, I'm glad they lost the war. They may have been noble but their cause was based around supporting an unjust system. As a born and bred Southerner, I feel no reason honor this cause. We must understand the actions of our ancestors from their contextual framework, but that doesn't mean I must excuse a belief system that is fundamentally against what I believe to be true. You cannot deny that the South was protecting a way of life built upon slave ownership. It was an unjust system and if they had won the war, slavery would have continued and possible expanded. And that is why I say thank God the South lost the war. It doesn't matter what values were being defended, the alternative scenario would have been untenable from a human rights perspective.

That said, at Saturday’s rally to have the flag removed from the SC Statehouse grounds, the flag itself was never demonized. There was actually an earnest and heartfelt call to honor the flag for what it was: a symbol that many of our ancestors fought under in support of their cause, which they believed was noble. (And it should be noted that likely 80% of the crowd was White, so the rally was really speaking to majority that would have had Confederate ancestors). But the flag has been repurposed too many times by people resisting change and clinging to an outdated and false memory of a glorious Old South.

The flag causes pain for many people, and for that reason we need to listen to our fellow Americans and we need to remove the flag from our government buildings. Let’s honor our heritage and move forward together- all race, creeds, and colors. As one of the speakers at the rally stated, let’s reclaim the idea of “Southern Pride” as being pride in what we can accomplish together as a vibrant and diverse people, looking forward, learning from our past. Let’s move forward together for a better future for our state. We certainly don’t need to drag along a contentious symbol of oppression along with us.

1 comment:

Cathie said...

I, too, am from the south. I have ancestors who fought in the Civil War too. I live right next to a historical Civil War battlefield. I live in a town that has historical significance for the south and the Civil War. I am glad that event is in fact, in history, and I am glad the north won. I cannot imagine what kind of country would exist if the north had not won. I may not even exist, who knows. I think the Confederate Flag should be removed from all state capitals. I believe that it could be a useful tool to teach about a time in history when people owned other people. That sounds so biblical. It was as recent, as 150 years ago. I cannot imagine people owning people. Take down that flag.