What Do I Do With My Confederate Flag?

What Do I Do With My Confederate Flag? June 29, 2015

By Shane Claiborne.  

EQRoy / Shutterstock.com
EQRoy / Shutterstock.com

I own a Confederate flag.

I grew up in East Tennessee, and the Confederate flag branded everything we looked at in our high school – even the cheerleaders had “butt-flags” that flapped over the back of their mini-skirts at football games.  We were the Maryville High School “Rebels”.

Growing up, the flag meant little more to me than school spirit, pep rallies, and Southern pride… until I left East Tennessee.

I’ll never forget the moment things began to change.  I moved into my college dorm room, and established my new home at Eastern University in Philadelphia.  I carefully set up my desk, put my posters on the wall, and displayed my high school yearbook – with a Confederate flag on the cover — proudly on my bookshelf.

One of my new college pals came into the room, stopped in his tracks, jaw dropping – horrified.  “WHAT IS THAT?” he shrieked, pointing to my yearbook.

It wasn’t long until there was an audience in the room and I was getting schooled in history.  Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s words rang true for me:  “Across the south, we have a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.”

I’ll admit my first instinct those twenty years ago was defensive.  No one wants to feel stupid or have folks patronize them.  But my new friends – both black and white – were gentle with me.  They displayed the perfect combination of truth and love – and I needed both.  They opened my eyes to what the true, historic reality of the Confederate flag – the trauma it conjures up for black folks still today, not unlike Jews looking at a swastika.

By God’s grace and thanks to the patience of good friends, this embarrassing moment became a landmark on my own journey to pursue a more just world.

Many years ago, my alma mater ditched the Confederate flag as its central symbol of pride.  But I still have one in my closet down in Tennessee.

And now the entire country is in a frenzy about this relic of history.

Alabama’s Capitol has taken down all four of its Confederate flags, by order of the Governor.  Wal-Mart, Amazon, and E-bay are pulling the flag from the shelves (or virtual shelves).  South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has called for the flag to be brought down.  And in an epic move that will go down in history like Rosa Parks, the world watched Bree Newsome – in an act of holy disobedience – climb the 30 foot flagpole at the South Carolina Capitol and remove the flag, as Scripture and prayers rolled from her lips, and a liberated smile shined on her face.

In his eulogy to Clementa Pinckney, President Obama suggested it is time to take down the Confederate flag.  It is a haunting reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.  To remove it, as the President stirringly suggested, is not an insult to the Confederate soldiers, but an acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought – slavery – was wrong.  And he is right that taking down the flag is one step (among many) in an honest accounting of American history as well as a hopeful expression of God’s grace, “a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”

We have too often been blind to the pain it stirs up.  I have been blind.

We have too often ignored the ways it has been used as a weapon by folks filled with hate.  I have ignored.

We have too often allowed one person’s freedom to prolong another person’s oppression.  I have allowed it.

God forgive me.  And I also ask for forgiveness from the people of color in my high school and small Tennessee town who may have been hurt by the flag I waved as a teenager.  Forgive me.

I agree with the growing consensus in our country.  While private citizens are free to wear it, wave it, and tattoo it on their bodies – the Confederate flag has no place in the public square.

Its proper place is in a museum, not on the grounds of a public building.  Along with the NAACP, and so many others, I support the nonviolent act of removing this historic symbol of injustice from public spaces.  In fact, I’m thinking of calling Bree Newsome and seeing if she’ll give me a climbing lesson.

Certainly it represents a different character of darkness in history as the swastika, but they both represent deep trauma, agonizing pain, and injustice.  And they both belong in the same place – a museum where we can remember, and grieve.  Placing the flag in a museum ensures that we cannot erase history or forget the mistakes of the past.  But it also reminds us that we are not held hostage to history, and a better future is possible if we want it.

My only question is what to do with the Confederate flag that still gathers dust in my childhood home down in TN.  Is there a museum I can mail it to?

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30 responses to “What Do I Do With My Confederate Flag?”

  1. “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”
    – From the Constitution of the Confederacy, Article I, Section 9, Clause 4

  2. I’ve had a totally opposite reaction to this recent flurry of political correctness. I’ve never given the Confederate flag a nanosecond of thought over the years. After all, I have no “heritage” at stake here, one way or the other. My ancestors were all still in Poland during America’s Civil War.

    But I’ll tell you the honest truth here. Disgusted with all the over the top whitewashing of history being proposed at present (it reminds me of how they airbrushed all the purged Bolsheviks out of photographs during the Stalinist terror), for the first time in my life I’m seriously thinking of going out and buying one.

  3. Well, for one thing, you can send the flag to me! I love it! I’m a hard core Rockabilly Rebel, even though hairloss took my pompadour.

    Has anyone ever told you, the Civil War was not about slavery, but about the rich South wanting to make it on their own, and Lincoln depriving them, because all the rich agricultural lands were in the South? Or it this version of American History only taught in Europe?

    Don’t get me wrong now, I don’t hold a grudge against freed slaves, since as a catholic I know, our Israelite ancestors once were slaves in Egypt, many of our European ancestors once were slaves in Greece or the Roman Empire, so, I know the drill. We all have that somewhere in our history, yet no-one can claim to have spoken to an ancestor who actually has been slaved. On the other hand, we might all have slave owners among our ancestors, just like your Mr. President.

    From as far as Europe, no big deal, that Stars & Bars. What’s next; will “Dixie” be banned? Even though Elvis sung it in his American Trilogy? If you really want to lose your flag, mail me in private.

    God bless,


  4. “….Disgusted with all the over the top whitewashing of history being proposed at present…”

    Can you elaborate? What do you think is being ‘whitewashed’ that makes you sympathetic with Confederate wannabes?

  5. Near where I live, they’re lobbying to change the name of Robert E. Lee Park to something else. That’s whitewashing history.

    In next door Virginia, there’s pressure building to change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway. That’s airbrushing out the past.

    Just two examples. Two of all too many.

  6. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were traitors. We don’t have highways named after Benedict Arnold; why do you think it’s appropriate to have them named after Confederate traitors? It’s not “white-washing history” to say that those men should not be honored.

  7. Who’s “honoring” them? They’re just being named. Have you ever looked at all the names of US Army installations around the country? More than half of them are named for Confederate generals. (Ft. Bragg, Ft. Lee, Ft. Hood, Ft. Polk, Ft. Gordon, Ft. Benning, Ft. Rucker, Ft. A.P. Hill, Ft. Pickett, Camp Beauregard, and maybe more that I don’t know about) Do you want to change all of them now? And if so, how are you any different from the Stalinists who diligently airbrushed the images of purged Bolsheviks out of pictures in history books?

  8. Honestly, I’m having a hard time seeing where you are coming from. There is an obvious difference between presenting history and building monuments. No one is suggesting that we pretend these men never existed or to not teach children about them. But, to name our public facilities after them is clearly an honor – an honor they do not deserve. There is a reason that we don’t have a Ft. Che, no Mao blvds., and no Rommel International Airports. That reason is because we don’t want to honor them. The only way for your viewpoint to make sense is to believe that a Lenin Post office would be totally acceptable and merely remembering an important person in history.

    Do you think it was Stalinist for Spain to tear down its abundant Franco statues? Or Iraq and it’s Hussein statues?

    If you want to make the argument that these men are worth memorializing, go ahead. But let’s not pretend that history is at stake. They will still be in our school curriculum along with Churchill, Lincoln, Lenin, and Hitler. Books will still be written about them. People will still know who they are and what they stood for.

  9. Excellent !! open and honest, you asked to be forgiven, you are forgiven by me; and I love you with the Love of Jesus.
    if only more white people were as bold and honest and humble, maybe just maybe, we can really sit at the table of Brotherhood and don’t even see the color of one’s skin as a factor to be considered in decision making.
    Blessings Shane…

  10. Take your scissors, cut it into very small pieces, and deposit in the trash where it belongs. And then donate some money to the six black churches which burned down this week. The FBI is investigating all of the fires, three are now confirmed to be arson. Racism is terrorism.

  11. Do they fly the Nazi flag over the government buildings in Germany? Has Germany white washed its history?

  12. As John Oliver said, their main use now is to let the rest of us know where the shit bags are at.

  13. How is it not honoring someone to name a military base after them? It isn’t ‘whitewashing’ history that there are no “Joseph Mengele Memorial Hospitals.” We *should* have more museums recording the barbarity of slavery and the moral bankruptcy of secessionist traitors. Instead, we name high schools after them?

  14. “There is a reason that we don’t have a Ft. Che, no Mao blvds., and no Rommel International Airports”

    You are correct. And the reason is they weren’t Americans.

  15. You don’t have to compare European textbooks with Americans’. You can look at original documents. The declarations of secession by the seceding states make it clear that the primary issue for them was guarding the institution of slavery–not just being able to keep slaves, but being able to transport them as property through non-slaveholding states and being able to extend slavery into new territories.

    From Georgia, the very second sentence:

    For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

    From Mississippi, again right at the beginning:

    Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.

    South Carolina takes longer to get to the point, but its complaint of the Northern, non-slaveholding states is:

    Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

    Note that the ‘property’ referred to is slaves.

    From Texas:

    In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

    Emphasis mine.

    They are fascinating documents, and I encourage everyone to read them. This is not an issue there should be any confusion about.

  16. There’s a gigantic difference between ‘remembering the past’ and ‘celebrating the past’, but apparently you can’t seem to get that.

    Yes, people like Stonewall, Rommel, Lee, Himmler, Che, and the like existed– they were brave, honorable, intelligent, and stuck up for themselves against massive odds. They are, by any definition of the word, ‘great men who shaped history’. That doesn’t make the fact that those five people fought for horrible, evil causes and that celebrating those causes is sick.

    ‘Greatness’ has never been, and will never be, the same thing as ‘goodness’.

  17. Pretending that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War is basically the same, morally, ethically, historically, etc, as claiming that anti-Jewish persecution had nothing to do with World War II. It’s complete nonsense that’s only claimed by a small, hardcore political fringe, respected by few. Sheesh.

  18. Time for someone to start identifying these racists, and connecting them with their businesses or places of employment. They can fly their racist flag all they like, I just don’t want to unwittingly support them economically.

  19. Maine Skeptic – You might pick up a copy of April 1865 by Jay Winik. It is one of the most unbiased documents regarding the civil war that I have ever read. In it you will find that Robert E. Lee is considered one of the greatest American military minds who was highly respected by the leaders of both the US and the Confederacy. But he also was a man of deep faith and was not comfortable with the issue of slavery; and when his home of Virginia called, he agreed to lead the army. You might recall that at that period in history, people identified more with their state than they do now. You will also find that it recounts an event that occurred the Sunday following the treaty that ended the war (and Robert E Lee was highly instrumental in that) that is worthy of your note.

    “Through victory an entirely new social order was to be established that would alter the relationship between the races forever. Unlike so many other Southerners, Lee embraced the new order. After peace had been achieved through unconditional surrender, the South became a vast, heavily occupied military zone with black Union soldiers seemingly everywhere.

    One Sunday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, a well-dressed, lone black man, whom no one in the community—white or black—had ever seen before, had attended the service, sitting unnoticed in the last pew.

    Just before communion was to be distributed, he rose and proudly walked down the center aisle through the middle of the church where all could see him and approached the communion rail, where he knelt. The priest and the congregation were completely aghast and in total shock.
    No one knew what to do…except General Lee. He went to the communion rail and knelt beside the black man and they received communion together—and then a steady flow of other church members followed the example he had set.

    After the service was over, the black man was never to be seen in Richmond again. It was as if he had been sent down from a higher place purposefully for that particular occasion.” This has also been recounted in the National Geographic News.

    It might also be pointed out that, unlike the Northern Army, the Confederate Military never burned civilians in the North out of their homes or tried to harm anyone other than opposing military. The North was heinous in that regard. Following the war, the Northern occupiers, informal though they were, imposed conditions on commerce in the South that has left a legacy of poverty and lack of education in the rural South that still exists today and has ultimately impacted Blacks and Whites alike.

    So get off your high horse. No one was sinless in that event.

  20. Oh, it’s you again. Well, you might remember something. At one point in time, I believe it was around 1776, we were the successionist traitors. I also believe that there are a number of things in the US that honor Dr. Werner Von Braun. He was, by your definition, a monster. Advancing the rocket technology of Germany that slaughtered thousands of innocent civilians. But, it was convenient for us to turn a blind eye to that to advance our own purposes. So again, I say get off your high horse, you are blinded by your own lack of objectivity. I am in no way defending slavery, in fact my forbears were driven out of Tennessee for freeing their slaves in the 1830’s. But as with the North, there was both good and bad in the South. Bigotry and genuine gentility as well. I abhor one, and celebrate the other. That war was over almost 150 years ago. Let’s learn from it, not keep fighting it.

  21. “Oh, it’s you again….”

    It’s touching that you remember me.

    “…it was around 1776, we were the successionist traitors… I am in no way defending slavery, in fact my forbears were driven out of Tennessee for freeing their slaves …”

    I’d be proud of that last part, too, but it’s time that we recognize that, in our efforts to treat Confederate soldiers with dignity, we’ve treated their cause with a respect and reverence it doesn’t deserve.

    During the revolution, men were laying down their lives for freedom of speech, equal protection under the law, freedom of religion, and democratic control of government. However many decent people may have lived in the South, the Confederacy fought for slavery and the dehumanization of people who’d been kidnapped from their homes and were living in conditions that included institutional torture.

    “…That war was over almost 150 years ago. Let’s learn from it, not keep fighting it…”

    But we’re not learning from it. Fox News and talk radio lionize people like Cliven Bundy, a racist who has been stealing from the American people for decades. They make heroes of thieves and traitors because they confuse the Revolution with the Confederacy. Why do we need an average of eighty guns per American citizen? Why are so many people preparing for a second civil war, not because their freedoms are endangered, but because their exclusive privileges are being threatened?

  22. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I guess I am not as “binary” as you are. I think all of us have both good and evil attributes. I am comfortable recognizing both for what they are. I do not, nor do most of my Southern friends glorify slavery. And it is not only the South that needs to learn from it. In fact, as pointed out by recent government actions, segregation is far more predominant in major Northern metropolitan areas than anywhere else. As a Christian, I believe that we are called to treat all with dignity, even when we don’t agree with them. That is not the same as glorifying their cause. I tend to share your suspicion of the media, as I don’t find either Fox News or its more liberal counterparts are doing anything constructive, only stirring the pot of divisiveness. My point in my comments to you were simply this. We cannot generalize about anyone, just because they are different that we are. That would include Southerners, Northerners, young black men in hoodies, wealthy middle aged white guys in suits, we all have individual points of view and reasons for those points of view. Until we get past the hating and the labels, we cannot identify and work through the reasons. To me, that is what we are not learning. While I agree that slavery was the tipping point issue for the Civil War, it is still factual to say that other issues were involved as well. I won’t go so far as to say that slavery was a symptom of those issues, but the conflict over states rights vs national control still rages today and still represents a major political divide between Northern and Southern states. Those issues aren’t going away. The “exclusive privileges thing” is a knife that cuts both ways. We are rapidly eroding freedom of religion by confusing it with freedom from religion, I don’t know where you got your 80 guns per person statistic, but none the less, unless repealed, the 2nd amendment is still valid. Those things, among others, were put in place at our Country’s beginning. We have, by extension, added to that things like right to privacy, right to a public education, right to basic health care and so forth. All in the name of “civilization”. But at some point in time, we have to back away from the labels and the hyphenated this that or the others and say. We are Americans, we have varied backgrounds that should be honored and respected, but we are where we are today and going forward. No more crutches, no more demonizing people for having different opinions, no more excuses for the sake of political correctness.

  23. “…My point in my comments to you were simply this. We cannot generalize about anyone, just because they are different that we are. That would include Southerners, Northerners,…”

    I apologize if I left the impression I was attacking Southerners as a group of people, because I agree with your statements I quoted. I’m in Maine, but my ancestors fought for the Confederacy, I spent my teen years in the Deep South, and my alma mater is in Texas. Racism still exists in the North and South, and I look forward to the day Texas throws off the religious right and becomes a haven of free thought.

    “The “exclusive privileges thing” is a knife that cuts both ways. We are rapidly eroding freedom of religion by confusing it with freedom from religion…”

    You can’t have freedom of religion without separation of church and state, so it’s not accurate to say the knife cuts both ways. Still, I agree that the worm could turn. Right now, a lot of American Christianity is toxic, but it’s a human toxin, and not exclusively a Christian one. Too many atheists think the world will automatically be a better place when the religions have eventually faded away. Neither Christianity nor atheism has made people immune to groupthink, prejudice, superstition and other human cognitive blind spots.

  24. Oh you poor thing – so ashamed of being Southern, so eager to distance yourself and make yourself sound sophisticated.