Now that the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia is being officially retired from government seals and capitol grounds across the Deep South, one has to wonder what’s next.
That’s hard to predict because this issue is so difficult to discuss.
There are those who genuinely, and without malice, consider the flag as an ancestral symbol of their regional pride, strength, and courage. But they’re called racists, which is the worst kind of insult.
There are also those who are genuinely, and deeply, hurt by displays of the banner under which an army fought to preserve the enslavement of their ancestors. Yet they’re accused of trying to erase history, one of the worst things a diverse society can do.
And then there are the real racists and the real censors. They do indeed exist, and while they’re small in number, they’re dominating the conversation and driving nearly every decision. Reasonable people cannot enter the discussion without being viciously attacked, so they leave. The result is that public officials and business leaders cater to the mob by making sometimes wise, often foolish, decisions. That’s sad.
As a proud son of the Deep South who has studied all aspects of our region’s history, I see both sides.
On the one hand, when I was very little I first thought the battle flag simply meant that you were from the country, liked to hunt and fish, or that you were a “rebel” of some sort or maybe a biker dude. I never associated it with a war, and certainly not with slavery or racism. I eventually learned about the Civil War, of course, and even that two of my great-great-grandfathers were Confederate cavalrymen who carried similar banners into battle. I then spent many summer afternoons visiting old Civil War battlefields with my parents, and learned a great deal about the conflict and the men who fought it.
I eventually grew to become critical of the Confederacy’s political and military leadership, though. They were educated and experienced men, and should have known better. Their rationale for succession was unwarranted, and a military rebellion was foreseeably doomed. Many died because they failed to steer their states clear of a horrible war.
But as a former soldier, I came to sympathize with the enlisted men who formed the ranks of the Confederate military. Many were simply answering their people’s call-to-arms, as men have done for centuries. There’s a degree of honor in that, and it should be respected.
On the other hand, ignorant bigots have misused the banner those soldiers fought under as a high-profile symbol of racism. While groups like the Ku Klux Klan have virtually vanished, the stain they caused – and the hurt they inflicted – remains nearly indelible. So whether the Deep South had its banner stolen by those hateful people, or whether it was surrendered to them during the era of segregation, it matters not. They have it, at least in the minds of millions.
I suppose it was a wise compromise to ceremonially retire the battle flag from official seals and capitol grounds, but the effort should end there. All this talk of removing memorials to fallen soldiers and sailors, banning battle flags from cemeteries, and disinterring long-dead generals is going way too far. That’s the kind of history-smashing thing you see in other countries, not in the United States. We don’t topple memorials to men or movements we disagree with. We acknowledge the past, learn from it, and go about our business.
When I was a staffer in Congress, sometimes I would lead tours of visiting Alabamians through the Capitol building. A favorite stop was in front of the statue of General Robert E. Lee, where I would remark about how “only in America” could a general who led a failed rebellion against the central government be memorialized in its capitol building. I saw Lee’s statue as a symbol of how strong America is, how different from other nations we are, and as an example of how, regardless of the difficulty, Americans would always come together in the end.
I think we should remember that lesson. We should stop all this fighting, show the world how strong this “indivisible” nation remains, and move on.
(First published on Al.com)