South Carolina made news recently when they took down the Confederate Battle Flag which had been flying in front of the state capitol. The flag had flown since it first took up residence beside a large Confederate War Memorial in 1960 first established to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War.
Like all things Southern this was not the entire story. Southerners take a great deal of pride in saying one thing, doing another, and meaning something completely different. After all, “Bless your heart,” is most likely the nicest put down a Southern will ever give, and they can mean it in a variety of ways.
So, Southerners didn’t just raise the flag as a means to show pride in our Civil War past or to honor the men who died believing they were fighting for a just and right cause. We did it because we were pissed at the growing civil rights movement in the south at the time of the 100th Anniversary of the Civil War. The Civil Rights Movement was another reminder that the Confederate States of America had lost the Civil War, and the demand for an end to Jim Crow was additional salt in the wound.
If this writer sounds conflicted, it is because she is. You see, I am related to Robert E. Lee; my son is related to Robert E. Lee on both sides of his family tree. This isn’t some passing fantasy that southerners have, this was what I was born and raised knowing. The Family Book of Bridges showed the connection plainly as the connection my ancestors have to the Cherokee Nation. On my son’s side of the family, whose surname is “Lee,” the connection is more direct. His family line descends directly from Robert E. Lee’s brother, Sydney Smith Lee.
This family connection, however, doesn’t erase the sins of the past nor does it take away the right of all Southerners to say something, do something, or be something that has multiple meanings. What do I tell my son? Do I tell him that his ancestry is rife with a deep sense of hatred for the black race as nothing more than chattel? Do I tell him that Robert E Lee was such a great battle general they still study his wins and loss in military institutions?
How do I tell him that our family is on the wrong side of history?
I just tell him.
My family, our family, was wrong. Slavery was wrong. Chattel slavery was vile. We come from a history of keeping slaves and enjoying the benefits of an unpaid work force that we stole from another continent and forced to work in our fields without any benefit unto themselves except what our family would give. And, in all likelihood our ancestors did not see this issue as we do, with the benefit of time and enlightenment. They thought, truly, that the Confederate States of America was protecting a way of life — and they were, but it was way of life bought and paid for in black lives. They believed in this so deeply that they went to war and died to prove how just and right their way of life was. Their lives, their blood, does not, however, trump the blood and lives of black slaves.
We can admire things about Robert E Lee: his skill as a general, a leader, and a warrior. However, in the end, we must admit, he was wrong. The Southern way of life was not one worth preserving if it came at the cost of chattel slavery – and it did, without flinching or shying away from the truth. It did.
The other thing that white southerners have to get over is the loss. It is as if for generations we have been mourning the loss of the Civil War and the integration of the South with the rest of the United States. We have continued to punish black Americans for the loss we had. In the end, the righteous prevailed and it wasn’t the Southern Confederate States of America. We were wrong and we need to let it go.
Ultimately we have to understand our own history, not through our own eyes, but through the eyes of the very race upon which we built our nation. We have to take a deep breath and admit that fellow Southerners raised that battle flag in South Carolina not to honor or commemorate our long dead Civil War heroes, but as a signal that a battle was still raging in the south. Only now it was over Jim Crow, the right to ride on any seat in the bus, the right to vote unimpeded or intimidated, the right to peacefully march and not to fear.
It has no place in our world today.
We southerners were defeated and now it is time to let those hopes and dreams shift and be filled with the unrelenting, unfiltered truth of our past and our present. It might cause the heart to twinge, but our hearts should burn with the loss of bloodied bodies that are still being spilled in this fight. Our hearts should recoil at the destruction of the sanctity of Mother Emmanuel.
If we take down this flag from state grounds across the south, we are saying – “We battle no more.”
We battle no more. We surrendered to the quiet and righteous truth that all men are created equal. We are willing to lay down the barbs of our tongue and the holding hatred in our hearts. We are willing to acknowledge that we do not want any more. No more bloodshed or unfair and unjust treatment of an entire race. We understand that years ago what we once thought was right, good and just was none of those things. It was wrong. Wrong on a level of wrongness that even now, hundreds of years later that injustice still rings, kills and decimates – not only the black race – but the southerner’s very soul.
We take down this flag because we know all of this and we only want to battle no more.