It is a surprising, even shocking, feature of any proud, sovereign nation. The scandalous nature of monuments, carved in stone to celebrate the leaders and vision of a seceding Confederacy, is only made more remarkable by the fact that these tributes to treason are everywhere in the United States of America. For many years these memorials of betrayal have crept quietly across every sun-setting southern town square as their silent shadows lengthened into darkness, casting a pall of deceit over all. Many of us were raised in the shadow of such shame without even knowing it.
“It is difficult for me to imagine any conscientious citizen, much less a person of faith, overlooking the hate in the name of celebrating Southern heritage.”
Some say it’s “heritage, not hate.” But what is the heritage? Honestly, what? Dissenting against the values of a beloved Constitution? Rejecting a vision of breathtaking freedom, “unalienable rights,” “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? Silencing a pledge of “liberty and justice for all”? These leaders of an unholy confederacy sought a different vision altogether. And we want to celebrate that?
Where would we be – what would we have become – if they had prevailed? It’s hard to imagine, but the melting pot of cultures and commitments, the beautifully-designed diversity that is the United States of America, the daring democracy that is unique among all the world’s cultures would never have shone its light of truth across the history of human civilization had they won.
They did not prevail. Thanks be to God! Yet the monuments erected to salute their – their what? – their honor, valor, treachery, betrayal, racism? – still exist. These so-called “heroes” did not prevail, yet statues to their memory have.
That vision of sedition and oppression did not prevail, yet we have preserved the images of the defeated, those who championed a limited vision of what a nation can be. We have lifted these names as if they were national heroes. It’s a stunning thing. Who else honors the betrayers of their own nation? Who else celebrates those who fought for the right to oppress, to deny, to dehumanize their fellow citizens? It really is an amazing thing to witness.
And once your eyes are open to this incongruity, to the illogic of infidelity, you cannot not see it. The statues are everywhere, the names of the dishonored everywhere. Why would we do such a thing?
Yet, we have done such a thing; so let me confess, as horrified as I am of that symbolism and that vision of hatred which overshadows any so-called heritage, that as a product of the American South, and even as a Baptist, I can find the slightest hint of that logic rumbling around in the dark corners of my being. I was not raised celebrating the motto of hate, “The South will rise again”; quite the contrary. But I was raised with the “Southern pride” of an independent spirit and a healthy orneriness that was bequeathed to my hard-working, poor kin. The impulse of dissent also whispers to me from my staunchly free Baptist heritage.
Some continue to argue that the monuments – and that monument to the monuments, the Confederate battle flag – stand across the South and onward from Maine to Texas and even into California as symbols of that spirit. It is difficult for me to imagine any conscientious citizen, much less a person of faith, overlooking the hate in the name of celebrating Southern heritage. The truth is, that flag is a reminder of a horrifying, openly-hostile racial past, where the color of their skin made some people less than human legally (and made them detestable, beyond pity, by some twisted ideologies and theologies). And I know that not everyone who raises those colors, dons the t-shirts or purchases a sticker or patch is a card-carrying member of the Klan or some skinhead hate group.
“Flags have a way of bringing out the worst in us.”
Enter NASCAR, where the Confederate flag has been ubiquitous, almost a brand logo for the nation’s largest spectator sport. In stadiums packed with 200,000 fans, the “Southern cross” has covered the crowd almost as completely as high-octane petroleum fumes and a fine dust of tire rubber.
The origin of the sport is perhaps not honorable, but it derives from Prohibition, not slavery, the sin of intemperance not intolerance. Southern moonshiners souped-up their cars to outrun “the law,” and over time both the product and that passion for running fast and leading the pack became legal. The Rebel Flag has been synonymous with stock car racing ever since.
But NASCAR has now had the decency, the integrity, the honor to recognize the gravity of the pivotal moment in U.S. history in which we are living. In an inspiring act of clarity, the sport’s leaders have recognized that while Daytona and Darlington are not Klan rallies in disguise, the Confederate flag does have undeniable overtones of the hatred of our bitter racial history (if not the not-so-subtle hints of the racism that still runs fast and furious and loud). If only calculating the monetary value of the moment, if only a nod to the one recognizable black driver on the entire circuit, NASCAR has done the right thing and has set an example.
Leaders of the multi-billion-dollar industry that has lived and died under the banner of that symbol for years have set the pace for mayors and city councils around the country. The Secretary of the Army is reviewing and reconsidering the naming of 10 military facilities, dishonored by their indelible connection to the Confederacy. Colleges and institutions around the South are scrubbing memorials and renaming buildings (or, naturally, appointing committees to study whether such actions should be taken). The NFL is onboard with the new day of racial sensitivity. Many of our civic and religious leaders are recognizing that the time has come.
It is yet to be determined, however, if decency, integrity and honor will actually prevail, because logical clarity is never guaranteed. Indeed, flags have a way of bringing out the worst in us.