I’ve remained silent about events surrounding the rebel flag, in part because much of it happened while I was on vacation, in part because other issues (like the decision on redistricting) fit neatly within an area to which I have been paying considerable attention.
In part, however, I have said nothing because of my strong internal response to these events. When the rebel flag come down from the Capitol grounds in South Carolina, I nearly cried. “I never expected to see this in my lifetime,” I told my wife. And I was deeply gratified by the courage of those who made it happen . . . especially those, like South Carolina State Representative Jenny Horne, who spoke so passionately from their own historical ties to the Confederacy and yet said it was time to bring the flag down.
As community after community confronts this emblem and its place in our psyche, including my home county of Hillsborough, I am moved again. Not just with admiration for those who are ordering the banner taken down, but with compassion for the sense of loss of those who wish to claim the banner as a symbol of something good, not something evil.
I was raised in Michigan by politically moderate parents who were well-educated and well-informed. Their sensitivity to the dynamics of race in American society was complex. I don’t think they were fans of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but I am certain that they sought to raise us as young men who would judge others by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
My earliest memory of explicit efforts by my parents to address the question of race was my first summer camp experience. I was in a decided racial minority; all of my memories of that summer are of my buddies whose skin was much darker than my own. And that was only the beginning of my parents’ efforts to open us to the dignity of all.
I never thought of the KKK as representative of my interests or my point of view. In George Wallace I saw a symbol of hatred and prejudice (and, much later in his life and mine, a symbol of reconciliation and hope). When David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the KKK in Louisiana, took a turn as the official Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from that state, and the national Republican leadership, as well as nearly everyone else, repudiated him, I was gratified. (His resurfacing lately has me less gratified.)
All of which explains why, for me, the rebel flag is a distasteful and at times offensive reminder of the hatred and bigotry promoted by many who chose it as their battle flag, not in the mid-19th century, but in the 20th.
Even so, when I see a bumper sticker with that flag, along with the slogan, “Heritage, not Hate,” I don’t assume the owner of that vehicle is racist. Nor do I reject the sentiment expressed in the slogan.
Men (and women) fought on the side of the South in the 1860s for a diverse set of reasons, just as men (and women) fought on the side of the North. There were racist bigots in the Union ranks, not least among some of the officers we now herald as national heroes. There were compassionate souls in Confederate gray who despised slavery yet fought to defend their homeland in the South.
However, I believe the association of the rebel flag with these individuals of historical memory has been eclipsed by the adoption and promotion of the flag as the symbol of those who fight, not for freedom, but for oppressive political, economic and social institutions and practices based on a false claim of racial superiority. The symbol may have been “stolen,” as some would claim. But as a theft, it has been remarkably successful. Like illegal gains that have been laundered and made “legit,” the rebel flag has become the unquestioned possession of those whose brand is bigotry and whose pride is in their prejudice.
I don’t blame this theft on those who have clung to the symbol as their heritage. The virulence and determination of those who stole their flag simply was a more potent and intoxicating brew than the love of family and tradition of those to whom the flag perhaps more rightfully belonged.
As we are often reminded, possession is nine-tenths of the law.
So while I have sincere respect for those who wish to preserve the memory of their ancestors who fought courageously in a time long past, and would not deprive them of that preservation, I believe it is time to recognize that the rebel flag simply cannot stand for their virtue in the 21st century.
Once upon a time, perhaps, it stood for something worthy of respect. But that day is long past, that sun long set. It’s time for taps for the rebel flag.