I am a white son of the American South who accepts the reality that the Civil War was fought mainly in defense of slavery, that it is revisionism at best to contend otherwise and that the Confederate Battle Flag now represents the worst of our racist heritage. It is sad and disgraceful that 150 years after the Civil War ended with the Confederacy in defeat and slavery outlawed that we are still having this conversation.
I refer to myself here as a son of the South because I was born and have lived all my life in North Carolina, as did my parents and all four of my grandparents. I am descended from Confederate soldiers on both my father’s and my mother’s sides of the family. My mother was briefly a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy until she became disillusioned and resigned. A number of years ago, in order to better understand the American South, I undertook to become better read and educated in four areas: the Bible, the history of the Civil War, the novels of William Faulkner and the plays of William Shakespeare.
My Confederate ancestors might have been men of “valor and devotion,” to use Robert E. Lee’s words from his Farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia. They might have been “steadfast to the last.” I respect them for their courage and the hardships they endured. I accept they might have seen their efforts as defense of their homes and way of life. But they were wrong. They fought for the wrong cause. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now.
Today, we can pretend the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, but we also would have to acknowledge that the principle “right” the Southern states were fighting for was the power to allow a state’s residents to own, buy and sell other human beings. We white Southerners can say we want to honor our Southern heritage, but we also would have to acknowledge that a part of that heritage includes an economic system based on white men, women and children benefiting from the slave labor of black men, women and children.
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Whatever the Confederate battle flag might have meant in 1865, at least since the 1960s and the advent of the civil rights era it has become a symbol of white supremacy, segregation, racism and bigotry. It has no proper place in our society today – none – with the possible exception of occasional museum display.
If I want to honor the graves of my ancestors, flowers will serve that purpose well. If I want to honor any part of my family’s history, I can do so in ways that do not insult a large percentage of my black friends and white friends and fellow citizens.
The Confederate battle flag has no place on our state flags or license plates or bumper stickers, unless we want to proclaim ourselves as continuing our long, dark shameful history of bigotry and oppression. Whether we like it or not, the Confederate battle flag has become a slap in the face, a painful affront, to black and white alike.
It is we white sons and daughters of the South who should be helping to lead the charge to remove the Confederate battle flag from our midst, to shame its display for any reason. If we want to honor the good parts of our Southern traditions and heritage, it is incumbent on us to do so in ways that do not bind us to continuing the shameful parts of that history. Remembrances and respect for my family’s history do not depend on the display of an insulting symbol of our past sins and wrongs. If my ex-UDC-member mother were still alive, I am confident she would agree wholeheartedly.
Stephen T. Smith practices law in Raleigh and volunteers with the N.C. Council of Churches.