As I write this, I’m sitting on the balcony of a condo in Panama City Beach, an area affectionately known as the Redneck Riviera and, yes, one of the ten most overrated destinations in the South according to a post I wrote last year. I’m on vacation, so for the most part I’ve tried to disconnect from the rest of the world. But I can’t escape the Confederate flag.
Every cheap souvenir store we’ve visited sells shirts, magnets, and beach towels with the Stars and Bars on them. I saw a teenager at the pool wearing a hat emblazoned with the flag and the word REBEL embroidered on it. And all I can think when I see that flag is, “Not here. Not now.”
I’m keenly aware of what a lightning rod the Confederate flag has been for many years, as well as what it has become in the wake of the atrocity in Charleston last week. I know that pressure has come from all sides for the state of South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from its capitol, and I know that Governor Nikki Haley has called for the state legislature to act to remove the flag.
One of the most prevalent arguments in favor of the Confederate flag is the “heritage, not hate” line. Plenty of well-meaning people without a racist bone in their body have made this claim over the years. I don’t doubt that I’ve employed that logic myself at some point. Heritage is an admirable thing to take pride in, but when an aspect of that heritage has been used to justify unspeakable acts of evil, then it’s time to let it go.
I understand the resistance to the groundswell to take down the Confederate flag. So many of the voices arguing for the removal of the flag come at us from outside the South. One of the hallmarks of our culture down here is a “leave us the hell alone” attitude toward outsiders – and Lord knows we’ve had plenty of Northerners and others telling us what to do. We Southerners are inclined to protect what belongs to us from those who seek to take it away, right or wrong.
Over at Commentary, we’ve heard from one of those outsiders. Max Boot, a writer whose work I normally cherish, actually wrote that generations of Southerners hold on to a “myth” of Southern greatness. He’s only partially right. The South has had a great, beautiful history; unfortunately the specters of slavery and further racism have marred that history.
The thing is, those ghosts have haunted the history of the entire nation, not just down here in Dixie. To remind Mr. Boot, slavery existed for nine decades under the flag of the United States – not to mention the awful acts we inflicted on the native people of this land – so to use his logic, we must consider any notion of American greatness in the 19th century to be mythical as well.
(Mr. Boot also calls for the renaming of any institutions which we’ve named after figures from the Confederacy. I don’t think we necessarily need to go that far. No one has laid the blame for acts of racism on the fact that a person’s hometown contains a street named for Robert E. Lee.)
Instead, calls for the removal of the Confederate flag must come from Southerners if they are to be even remotely effective. Governor Haley has taken that courageous first step, and I applaud her for it. Caleb Howe did the same over at Red State, when he eloquently said:
The South rebelled. The rebellion is over. The Confederate States are no more. The rebel flag should not be on the Statehouse grounds in South Carolina. Yes, because of racism. Yes, because of hate. Yes, because of perception and symbolism. What is a flag if not a symbol? That is its whole purpose. It is not the symbol of state’s rights or freedom… Don’t make the battle flag for the Confederacy the battle flag for freedom. It’s the wrong flag for the battle.
You see, I hold firmly to the notion that we Southerners must choose our battles. We need to decide and decide firmly when we will stand our ground and when we will yield. When we do dig in, we must be prepared to fight these battle until we can fight no more. The Confederate flag is not one of those battles we should choose here in the South.
My first book publishes in just a few weeks; it’s called Football, Faith, and Flannery O’Connor: A Love Letter to the South. In it, I explore some of the aspects of Southern culture that are worth celebrating – our cultural and economic contributions that can’t be ignored or dismissed. We must stand our ground to preserve what’s best about the South. Instead of standing up for the lost symbols that divide people, we need to devote our energies to the things that make us stronger and that make the South stronger as a result.
Charleston, one of the South’s grand old cities, has demonstrated what makes this region so beautiful in the shadow of unspeakable horror. The expressions of forgiveness within the halls of justice, the prayer rallies, and thousands of people of every age, race, and walk of life marching in order on the Arthur Ravenel Bridge in a show of harmony serve as an inspiring reminder of what can happen when people come together in unity. I can’t help but believe that Southerners want others to remember them for events like these rather than for the two-headed monster of slavery and racism. This is the South I know and love. And it’s the South I want everyone else to know and love.
We Southerners should fight the battles that highlight the things that make us unique and wonderful. We should strive to set ourselves apart for our strengths. We cannot ignore the injustices that took place so many years ago, but we also shouldn’t choose to shove them in others’ faces with a flag.