The South IS Rising Again: A Southern Boy on Taking Down the Confederate Flag

The South IS Rising Again: A Southern Boy on Taking Down the Confederate Flag July 10, 2015

This morning the rebel flag was removed from the Capitol grounds of South Carolina. The South Carolina House and Senate, by overwhelming majorities in both houses, voted to take it down this week, and Governor Haley signed the bill yesterday.

I’m a Southerner. My father’s father’s father’s father was one Thomas Jefferson Talley LaMotte, who walked home to Columbia, South Carolina after fighting for the Confederacy in Virginia and North Carolina. Except for time overseas, I’ve lived in the South my whole life, and both sides of my family are from the South. The first LaMotte in the colonies immigrated to Charleston, South Carolina. I watched too much TV as a kid to have much of a Southern accent, but I say ‘y’all’ without irony. And this fully credentialed Southern White Guy is celebrating this day.

A memorial church window to my great, great grandfather in Columbia, SC
A memorial church window to my great, great grandfather in Columbia, SC

I have been watching and listening to conversations about this issue, and it has taken me a while to organize my thoughts, but I think it’s time I weighed in, as a Southern White male. So here are a few thoughts:

To those who point out that this was never officially the flag of the Confederacy, and rather was the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, I say that this is  a specious detail. There is no symbol more widely associated with the Confederacy than the rebel flag, and that is why South Carolina chose to fly it fifty years ago.

To those who say that taking down the flag is a denial and burying of history, I see it as just the opposite. The flag is being moved to historical archives, where we can learn about, reflect on, celebrate and critique our history. The South Carolina legislature has chosen to no longer hold this symbol in a place of honor. Taking it down is a matter of honestly facing history, not denying it.

To those who say that ‘we might as well blow up the Washington monument, then. He owned 300 slaves,’ it is a different thing to honor a man who made many good contributions and also participated in some terrible things (which could possibly be said of anyone), than to hold up a symbol of a large movement whose primary cause we find abhorrent.

To those who say, ‘what about other injustices? you’re a hypocrite!’, I say, yes, I’m a hypocrite. But I’m trying to be a hypocrite who is moving slowly toward justice rather than a hypocrite who is resisting it. If our standard for taking any action is that it addresses all injustices at once, we will never take positive action.

To those who say ‘heritage, not hate,’ I say that heritage does not mean living in the past, frozen in our understanding and beliefs. It is up to us what we make of our lives from the raw material of our history and inheritance. Heritage is the starting point for our lives, not the end point.

It is also worth noting that the flag has not flown there for 150 years, but for 50. It was added in commemoration of the Civil War, and remained as a repudiation of the civil rights movement. Do we want to celebrate the heritage of resisting civil rights?

And ‘not hate?’

Well, actually, I agree with you there.

It’s worse than that.

The Confederacy and the system of slavery that it fought for was not about hatred of Black people; it wasn’t that passionate. The people, including my own ancestors, who held other people in bondage didn’t do so because they hated them; they did it because it was economically advantageous. It was a cold-hearted denial of others’ humanity, and a defense of greed that required the violent enslavement of other human beings. It was also, for some, a desperate clinging to self-worth by poor white people who had come to believe what they have been told: that they are pretty worthless, but at least they are better than those other folks. That’s what a lot of racism still is, and both halves of it are a lie; They are not better, and they are not worthless.

It is so easy to feel superior and condemn oppressors from a safe distance. As I write these words, though, I am painfully aware that the pants I’m wearing and the computer I’m typing on were both made by people working under slave-like conditions (just enough food and living space to survive, abuse, unsafe work spaces, unconscionably long hours, child labor, etc.). This system benefits me, and I support it financially, allowing me relatively cheap merchandise at the cost of others’ well being. In that knowledge, I have to bring some humility to this conversation. I think we all do. We are participating in the oppression of others, even now, through systems that seem too large for us to affect (though they are not). Perhaps that’s how Thomas LaMotte felt as he marched off to war. Or maybe not. I wish I could talk with him about it.

The idea that the Civil War was over ‘states’ rights’ is revisionist history, unless we finish the phrase with ‘states’ rights to buy and sell other people, beat and murder them with impunity, take their children, etc.’  In fact, all of the Declarations of Secession from the various states mention challenges to the institution of slavery as a primary reason for leaving the United States, and the text of the Declaration of Secession of the Confederate States of America actually argues against states’ rights, listing among its primary grievances the northern states’ refusal to return stolen slaves. It argues that they should have been forced to.

Having said that, many Southerners have our identities tied up in symbols like that flag. It feels to many like a symbol of where we’re from, of places and people we love, not what we’ve done. So, as illogical as it may be, marginalizing that symbol, to some people, feels like an attack on one’s very self. It isn’t that, of course. It is a call to be better, to write a new story, to acknowledge the ways we have blown it in the past, and to nourish ‘the better angels of our nature’, as Lincoln said.

Still, what is intended is not always what is understood (yes, that argument works both ways, and it doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for the damage we inflict in either direction). Let’s not live into the misunderstanding. I’ve seen lots of South-bashing lately, and though I understand something of where that’s coming from, I think it’s a mistake. Let’s not put down Southern White people, South Carolinians, or any other group of people as ‘less than,’ in the very moment that we remove this powerful symbol of denigration and subjugation. The foolish notion that some groups of people are fundamentally better or worse than others is precisely what we are standing against.

A White man whom I love recently said to me, after reading something I had written about race, “Sometimes I wonder whose side you’re on.” Let me clarify that: I’m on the side that doesn’t believe there are sides. We can’t hate people in the name of love, or put people down in the name of tolerance and inclusion, whether we’re winning or losing. We have to reach a little higher than that.

Some say that the flag issue is a distraction. They worry that we will win this struggle, call it done, and then go back to business as usual. Doubtless, some of us will. Others will be awakened to the fact that things that seemed impossible to change are not, if we work to change them, and will be energized to work for the next goal. There is no shortage of important work to do in the world. What is yours to do?

History moves incrementally, and lasting, real change is slow. This day has been a long time in the making. Those words are not a call to patience, however. We should be impatient with issues of justice. It’s a call to hope, and a rebuke to despair. This is only one step in a long journey, but things do change for the better if we work to change them.

As it turns out, the Rebels had it right in at least one regard. The South is rising again. This is what real rising looks like.

Watch and see. The flag is coming down.

IMG_7346David LaMotte is an award-winning songwriter, speaker and writer. He has performed over 2500 concerts and released eleven full-length CDs of primarily original music, touring in forty-eight of the fifty states, as well as extensively in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. 


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25 responses to “The South IS Rising Again: A Southern Boy on Taking Down the Confederate Flag”

  1. “A White man whom I love recently said to me, after reading something I had written about race, “Sometimes I wonder whose side you’re on.” Let me clarify that: I’m on the side that doesn’t believe there are sides. We can’t hate people in the name of love, ” . Agreed. I think if we took your post and changed “white” to “Christian” and then looked at this whole issue through that lens, we all would be able to see clearly the path to restoration for everyone, much quicker.

  2. I grew up in Texas in the 60’s and I saw plenty of stars and bars on pickup trucks. The owners where invariably the same folks that liked to brag about “coon hunts”, and they weren’t talking about little furry animals. There was never any doubt about what that flag represents in the south. We are long over due in honestly coming to terms with that.

  3. Today is a great day for white evangelicals to enact The Greatest Commandment, and evangelicals in the racist south can lead the way.

  4. As a Texan myself, I’m pretty tired of having idiots think that the government using taxpayer money to make Confederate flags to sell them in gift shofts or put them on license plates or hoist them in public spaces et cetera is somehow a part of ‘free speech’.

    No, the government on the taxpayer’s dime promoting something is not ‘free speech’. It’s ‘state speech’. And, in the case of being pro-Confederacy, it should freaking stop. I very much agree.

  5. It’s seriously heartening how many devout Christians (whether of the Methodist stripe, Baptist stripe, or what have you) in the south are willing to use simple reason and logic in this case, breaking with mere tradition in order to be inclusive. It goes to show how being a hard-line conservative and being a Christian are far from synonymous with most Christians having cooler heads.

  6. And you know Ben, if you could’ve pick a hair from one of those flag waving son’s of the Confederacy, and had their DNA traced, I’d bet you’d be surprised at their ancestry. Whenever I see a proud son of the Confederacy waving the rebel flag I ask myself was his great, great, great grand pappy a Confederate soldier, or was he a slave? The woman to man ratio was rather unequal. The entire population of white males in small towns that sponsored volunteer units were completely wiped out in battle. So before I’d wave the Confederate Flag I’d check out my genealogy first.

    http://cosmofunnel.com/poems/whos-your-dixie-daddy-72100

  7. Here’s a song I’ve been working on.

    I want everyone to know that I love Dixie
    I’m Georgia born and Southern by the grace of God
    I was raised on ice tea and corn bread
    So some of you might find this rather odd

    I don’t bow down to nothing or nobody, unless you’re a king who gave His life for me.
    I was washed in the blood when I was just a baby
    and Amazing Grace is the only anthem that I sing

    Chorus
    You can have your flag. It ain’t mine.
    You could take everyone of them down and I’d be fine.
    These “stars and bars” never set men free
    and a battle flag is all it’ll ever be.

  8. Acknowledging history is not revision. The generals who fought for slavery, fought for slavery. Unless they had some other major contribution to the United States, unrelated to their support of slavery, they should not have streets and parks named after them.

  9. Thank you, Rev. Lamotte, for putting the furling of the Confederate battle flag flying at the state house in Charleston in its proper perspective. By removing the flag from common, everyday locations and placing it only in museums, cemeteries, battlefields, and other places of honor and distinction, the pride and symbolism the “Stars and Bars” carries will be preserved for all future generations.

  10. I saw something on Facebook that said the red part of the Confederate flag represents Jesus’s blood, and therefore the flag should be kept up. Why, honestly, why? Why would you take pride in the symbol of a country that wanted to treat people as property solely because of their skin color?

    And the post in question was shared by someone whom I love and respect, which only makes it worse.

    In any case, praise God the flag is coming down.

  11. This is the part I wish more folks understood:

    To those who say, ‘what about other injustices? you’re a hypocrite!’, I say, yes, I’m a hypocrite. “But I’m trying to be a hypocrite who is moving slowly toward justice rather than a hypocrite who is resisting it. If our standard for taking any action is that it addresses all injustices at once, we will never take positive action.”

  12. The Jamestown colony was founded in 1607. With more than 400 years of history, Southerners ought to be able to find something more to be proud of than the four years they spent in treasonous rebellion.

  13. It is ok to keep them with a notion of the true history what they fought for and the symbols truly represent not suppression of facts..

  14. Somewhere in the south there must be someone displays the confederate battle flag who isn’t racist. I’ve just never met such a person nor has anyone I know.

  15. I know my genealogy quite well. None of my ancestors ever owned slaves. I’d like to think they were abolitionists who secretly helped with the Underground Railroad, but the truth is that they were dirt poor. Slaveowners were the southern 1% of the 18th and 19th centuries. Chances are if you’re from the south, your folks lived on a small farm and barely made it from one planting season to the next (and often didn’t).

  16. That flag is a associated with a lot of injustices including lynchings, segregation and many others. Today it is used around the world in lieu of the banned Nazi flag by white supremacist groups in Europe and Russia. It’s nothing to be proud of.

  17. In my hometown in East Texas we changed a lot of those in the 60s and 70s. Why is this still an issue? Because we didn’t address it 50 years ago. It’s not revision. It’s an end to the glorification of treason, racism and slavery.

  18. I have read that when Robert E. Lee was asked what should be done with the Confederate flag, he answered, “Fold it up and put it away.” I don’t know if that is true or not, but it certainly would indicate that he was ready to stop fighting and just get on with things. It’s too bad there are so many that can’t.

    I come from a family that had people on both sides. I have slave-owning ancestors. It’s a fact of life. As my daughter says, “I hope they were kind.” (What I’ve read about them leads me to suspect they were as humane as it was possible to be.) I neither agonize over it nor make a big deal of it; it is what it is. That was 150+ years ago. What’s important is now and going forward.

  19. Fans of Dukes of Hazzard? I suspect some people have no clue that the stars and bars were anything but racecar graphics.