Flag Waving Down South: Respecting the Past Without Offending

Flag Waving Down South: Respecting the Past Without Offending

By Jack Perry

Vol. 11, No. 1, 1989, pp. 15-16

What does the Confederate flag mean?

In asking the question, I have in mind that some black representatives are objecting to the flying of the Confederate flag over certain state capitols. I have in mind that in the recent turmoil over racial hazing at The Citadel, some voices have called for the Confederate banner to be furled and for “Dixie” to go unplayed.

I have in mind that different people see the Confederate flag quite differently–although their quarrel is not really over a flag from the past, it is over the uses of that past in the present.

Does the Confederate flag stand for honor and States’ Rights and The Lost Cause? Or does it stand for the defense of slavery yesterday and the offense of racism today?

May I tell you what the Confederate flag means to me?

It means a great deal. I am proud of being a Southerner, proud that my great-grandfathers marched off from north Georgia under the Stars and Bars. The portrait of one, Gabriel Wilhite Grimes, my mother’s grandfather, is on my office wall, holding his rifle and his bayonet, wearing the Gray. Also on my wall are portraits of a number of Confederate generals–three of Lee, my hero–and a print of the Battle of Lookout Mountain. I call myself a Southern patriot. Patriotism, to me, means not nationalism in the sense of jingoism but rather profound love for one’s native place. I feel deep in me the love of the South.

The South I love, nevertheless, has a past that gives me pain. A past that includes slavery, yes, but also that encompasses the Ku Klux Klan, lynch law, the Jim Crow system of segregation under which I grew up in Atlanta, the block-the-door reaction to the 1954 Supreme Court school decision, the resistance to the civil rights movement in the ’60s. It pains me that the Georgia legislature changed the state flag I grew up under–this was during the resistance to the civil rights movement–to install a Confederate battle flag that stood, I fear, more for 20th-century racism than for The Lost Cause. And if that Southern past gives me pain, so do lingering evidences of racism in the present.

Despite that pain, I love the South. I take comfort in the faith that since Emancipation there has been, underlying all injustice and racial division, common ground of civility and friendliness and humor and Southernness and-yes–love, between blacks and whites in the South. I think that the ending of Jim Crow and the acceptance of racial equality in a spirit of tolerance is one of the great accomplishments of any nation in this century. Blemishes and irritants there are, but I see racial harmony in the South as a real thing, one that shines.

“Ah,” you may say, “then you are a very idealistic man about the South.” Yes, Ma’am, I am. But I try not to be a fool, and I recognize that the Confederate flag is flown over some attitudes that ought to shame us.

How would I feel about the South if I were black?

Well, undoubtedly I would feel with ferocious conviction that slavery was a great evil–an evil that was ended not by Southern good will but by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and by the military defeat of the Confederacy.

I would regard Reconstruction not so much as an occupation by alien forces as a setting of crooked things straight. I would look on the rise of Jim Crow, long after the war was over, as a resurgence of the racist evil that was at the heart of slavery. I would consider the hostile resistance to the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s a sign that racial enmity dies hard.

I would, I believe, look with pride on the accomplishment of legal equality by that movement, an on the gains in status and in political power by blacks since then; and I would, I hope, be proud of the friendships that bind so many blacks and whites in today’s South. But I would surely remain aware of painful economic constraints for too many blacks, and I fear I would be more than a little worried about the persistence of racism in a host of direct and subtle ways.

Feeling that way, if I were black, I would look with a hard and cold eye on what often passes for Southern patriotism today. The Klan rallies carrying the battle flag. The pickup truck with the battle flag on the front tag and the rifle in the back window. The flying of the battle flag over state capi-

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tols. The politics behind the flag.

If I were black, in short, I could not afford to be so idealistic about the South as this white boy can be.

Proud as I am of being a Southerner, I would be foolish to shut my eyes to the racism in Southern history and to its persistence in some Southern attitudes today. We are capable of gentility and concord among blacks and whites, and therein lies one of the glories of the South. We are also capable of hatred and injustice, and the grave cries out against us if we forget it.

The Confederate banner I cherish is of many colors.

Hear what St. Paul saith: “Take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours becomes a stumbling-block to them that are weak.” If flying the battle flag of the Confederacy gives offense to our brothers and sisters, and if goads those who enjoy hatred into offensive acts, should we not furl the flag in public, and find other ways to show our respect for the Southern past? If the flag is in the heart, we need not fly it from our capitol flagstaffs to prove our patriotism. If Southerners of good will and good taste–and I dare to hope that there are at least a meaningful minority–cease to use symbols of the past to send intolerant messages into the future, I remain idealist enough to hope that the South as a whole will finally live up to our ideal of it.

For of course flags are merely symbols. What we are talking about here ultimately is politics, political deeds, positions and laws and policies that affect how we live.

I would love–wouldn’t you?–to see a message of good will between the races, in the South and beyond. Flying battle flags, and using race in politics, can be dispensed with. If we do not close our eyes to the dark side of our past, and of our present, the chances for wise choices will increase. And I say all that with a Southern accent.

Ambassador Jack Perry, a retired diplomat, is director of the Dean Rusk Program in International Studies at Davidson College. His comments are excerpted from remarks previously appearing in the Charlotte Observer.