I grew up in rural western Virginia back in the 80s and 90s, surrounded by many of the battlefields and other historical sites from the Civil War. Up and down through the green fields and small villages of the Shenandoah Valley, both Union and Confederate soldiers fought and died until the guns finally fell silent 150 years ago. At the Battle of New Market, cadets as young as 15 from Lexington’s Virginia Military Institute charged across a field into a maelstrom of musket and cannon fire. I was born in Lexington, Virginia in a hospital named after Confederate general Stonewall Jackson and my father taught at VMI briefly. Studying military history and strategies, especially from the Civil War has been a hobby of mine since I was very young – but I utterly detest the Confederate battle flag.
The Shenandoah Valley sits on the northern edge of the Bible Belt, and people who weren’t white and Christian were nearly unheard of when I was growing up. It was the source of much community gossip when a Jewish family from New York bought a nearby farm and decided to trade in the busy lifestyle of the big city for an organic farming experience with their three sons. It was an absolute scandal when Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross set up her facility in the area and planned to adopt infants who had AIDS. In 1994, a suspicious fire destroyed her center and while arson was believed to be the cause, nobody in the community would say a word and local law enforcement didn’t seem very interested in finding a culprit either. People praised Jesus that her work, considered by many to be witchcraft or even Satanic, was completely destroyed. In that same county, there wasn’t a single black resident, and it was an unspoken rule that they weren’t exactly welcome there.
As for the Confederate flag, it wasn’t something that was commonly displayed as I remember, but it was present at various historical sites and on the back of rusted pickup trucks parked at the local high school. Some schools and hospitals still bear the names of Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, and until 2000, Martin Luther King Day was celebrated as Lee-Jackson-King Day instead. To this day, I still remember our local mail carrier saying, “I wish they would shoot four more (racial epithet) so I could have the whole week off,” in regards to Martin Luther King Day which he saw as an insult to the memories of two Confederate generals. While Virginia seems to have had the lowest number of lynchings that plagued the South during the Jim Crow Era, the racism and resentment toward the end of segregation was still there – and the Confederate battle flag represents all of that. It is a flag that even Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the defeated Confederate Army, wanted to distance himself from after the war.
Lee did not want such divisive symbols following him to the grave. At his funeral in 1870, flags were notably absent from the procession. Former Confederate soldiers marching did not don their old military uniforms, and neither did the body they buried. “His Confederate uniform would have been ‘treason’ perhaps!” Lee’s daughter wrote.
So sensitive was Lee during his final years with extinguishing the fiery passions of the Civil War that he opposed erecting monuments on the battlefields where the Southern soldiers under his command had fought against the Union. “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,” he wrote. (Source)
The display of the Confederate flag, especially on government property, isn’t about remembering the soldiers and the history that came with the bloodiest conflict in American history. While some people will argue that it is about “heritage not hate,” it stands more as symbol of defiance towards the federal government, and often as a tacit reminder to blacks that while the South may have lost the war, the white man is still ultimately in charge.
As many writers have pointed out since the recent debate over the Confederate flag began, the main flag of the CSA wasn’t the one that you see today. In fact, the current “Stars and Bars” was relegated mostly to museums and memorial events until the end of segregation was in sight and groups like the KKK resurrected the flag to signify white resistance to a changing America – something it still represents today.
When Southern states gave the flags pride of place in their capitols, it was to signal support for segregation. The same Georgia state legislature that considered closing the state’s schools rather than integrating them also changed the state flag to include the Confederate symbol. Alabama Governor George Wallace — who promised to fight for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” — began flying the Confederate flag when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy came to Alabama in 1963 to discuss integrating the state’s universities. The South Carolina state Capitol began flying the flag in 1962 and never stopped. (Source)
The Confederate flag, like the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia that the Charleston shooter wore, still serves as a refusal to accept an America where a man of black heritage is the leader of the free world. That flag states an unwillingness to see people of other skin colors, religions and cultures as equals – regardless of what apologists may say to the contrary.
I am a Southerner by birth and I’ve lived in the South all of my life. I love black-eyed peas, collard greens, corn bread and nothing compares to the sound of the blues as played by someone from the Mississippi Delta. I assume that if you offer me iced tea that it has sugar in it and the only real barbecue is a hog, cooked low and slow and served with an East Carolina vinegar-based sauce, washed down with a cold bottle of Cheerwine. I grew up knowing what a “holler” is and for my seventh birthday, I received a .22 rifle as a present. I can skin a deer, make a roux, and shuck oysters about as fast as you can eat them. These are all things that I’ve learned growing up south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but hate isn’t one of them.
The Confederate flag is not part of my heritage, even though I have relatives who fought and died for what they believed to be their God-given, constitutional right to own slaves. I see it as being something that belongs in a museum, as a shameful reminder of our nation’s past, and the people who still embrace the hatred which should have died generations ago.
“If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.”- President Lyndon B. Johnson
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