Did you know that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery? It was an economic battle. Or a fight for states rights.
That’s the wisdom i’ve gleaned from social media in the last few days since a young man spewed his racial hatred in a flood of bullets in a Bible study in the historic Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.
Oh, and the Confederate battle flag is just a symbol of our heritage. And there really isn’t any racism, unless it’s what whites have to experience. (The views expressed on social media are not necessarily the views of this writer.)
The heritage thing is a biggie. The argument for the continued display of the Confederate flag over the SC statehouse is that it is a symbol of our southern heritage. Let’s be honest. Isn’t it time we stopped celebrating that heritage?
Lest you call into question my right to ask that question, let me establish my southern cred. My ancestors came to this country through Jamestown in the 18th century. One of my ancestors fought for the South at Gettysburg, as I recall, being wounded there. After the war the family homeplace in Chatam, VA was taken over by a northern carpetbagger… until that carpetbagger “disappeared. On my grandmother’s walls hung portraits of two fellow Virginians: George Washington and Robert E. Lee. I’ve never lived farther north than Piedmont North Carolina. Recently when I ordered coffee in a coffee shop in Princeton, NJ, the transplanted Virginian serving me said, “Your sweet tea will be right up.” My accent gives me away.
There is much of my southern heritage that I am indeed proud of and deeply love. I love biscuits and ‘lasses. I love walking through a park and having total strangers speak to me with kindness and welcome in their tone. I love the southern tradition of story telling and singing, part of the heritage of summertime churches with the windows wide open and two dozen funeral home fans moving in rhythm while the varnish from the pews is melting and staining our Sunday best.
I love magnolia trees and dogwoods and azaleas and the way spring just comes right out and loses all decorum, blooming all over itself. I love neighbors who keep interrupting my yard work because they want to stop and talk. I love a slow southern accent and its thousand variations. (There is one sports commentator on TV who talks faster than my ears can hear.) It’s all part of my heritage, bless my heart.
And none of it has anything to do with the battle flag. That was the flag of a rebellion.
Of course the Civil War was driven by economics. Southern plantations were built on the foundation of slave labor. They couldn’t survive without them. And of course it was a states rights issues. Southern states wanted the right to have slaves and moreover, wanted new states entering the Union to have that same right.
The South fought to preserve their peculiar tradition of slavery. While individuals may have fought because it was their home (Lee himself was torn between serving the Union he’d sworn to defend as a West Point graduate and fighting for his home state), the driving issue behind the war was slavery.
That’s the heritage the battle flag celebrates. That’s the heritage we need to stop celebrating. I am proud of my ancestors but not proud of the fact that they fought to defend an indefensible way of life. I cannot celebrate the fact that my ancestors owned at least one slave. (A surviving family will calls for the transmission of ownership for a female slave named Sukey.) That is not a heritage to celebrate. That is an injustice.
The other week I saw a car with a sticker on it from my alma mater. I went to a small school, and I’ve had people, upon seeing my school sticker on my car, run across a parking lot to tell me they went there too. But this time, for the first time, I didn’t want to meet the driver of a car with my school’s name on it. I was sick to my stomach.
Because the car had a bumper sticker on it as well. “Free at last” the sticker proclaimed, but there was no picture of Martin Luther King on it. Instead, there was a picture of the White House with a confederate flag flying above it.
That flag wasn’t expressing the hope for a southerner to be in the White House. (Off the top of my head, I can think of presidents in my lifetime from Texas, Georgia and Arkansas.) No, it was clearly a racist statement: the white people will be free at last when this black man is out of the White House.
That’s no glorious cause. And neither was the Civil War. That chapter in our heritage calls for repentance, not celebration.