When I was a child my grandfather instilled in me a love of history. He took me to Gettysburg, Jamestown, Tuskegee and many other historical sites where I would learn about days gone by in our nation. I learned that the Civil War was not so clear cut as I was taught in school. I learned that it was not simply the good guy north against the bad guy south and, being a good southern boy raised in Alabama, aka the heart of Dixie, I fell in love with the romance of “the old south” as they called it. I heard stories about men like Robert E. Lee who said the first side to free the slaves would win the Civil War. I heard stories about men like Stonewall Jackson, whose bravery knew no equal. I learned about General Sherman’s march to the sea and how he caused (by his estimate) over one hundred million dollars in property damage, which was unfathomable at the time. I loved my heritage, and I bought a couple small confederate flags at some of these civil war museums my Granddad had taken me to. For me the confederate flag represented only that I was a boy from the south and I was proud to be from Alabama.
I also had a mother who taught me never to judge a book by its cover, or a person by their color. I remember being very young and getting into a childhood fight with a couple black kids in my neighborhood and going home and telling my mother I didn’t like black people. Her response to me was that there are good and bad people of all colors and that I should never assume that people will be a certain way just because of what they look like. I think, largely due to my mother’s guidance, I grew up rejecting the racism that I heard and saw all around me. Referring to black people as niggers was something I simply never did. I also never laughed at the racist jokes I sometimes heard from my white friends. None of it ever sat right with me. I also always had at least a couple close black friends as I grew up.
This is the story about how a black friend of mine caused me to get rid of my confederate flags.
I must have been around 13 at the time. Early lived right down the road from me and had become one of my best friends. At that age I got picked on a lot and Early stood up for me and for the next several months we were pretty much inseparable. We both loved basketball and we would sometimes play for hours pretending to be various famous players.
One day, Early and I were in my house and we were looking for a football to play with. My room was always notoriously messy so finding anything in it was always a challenge. I was looking under my bed and Early was looking in my closet and he found my two confederate flags I had gotten on one of my trips with my Granddad. I saw him pull them out and my heart immediately jumped into my throat. For all my knowledge about the Civil War there was something inside me that knew that flag would mean something completely different to Early. He held the flag and looked at me and I’ll never forget what he asked me, “you a redneck?!” The question was not accusatory. It was one that held behind it the hurt of the racism that Early had surely experienced as a black boy growing up in southern Alabama. His question was one of betrayal. How could this good friend whom he had defended have the very flag that represented (to him), oppression and hate?
I ensured him that I was not a redneck and that I had just gotten the flag at a Civil War museum a couple summers ago. We found the football and went outside and played and I thought it was forgotten. However, things between Early and I were never the same. Sure, we were still friends, but it became more that we were friends in a friend group instead of him being one of my closest friends. I don’t recall him ever coming to my house after that day.
One day, at school, someone who I guess did not like me told Early that they heard me call him a nigger. As I said earlier, that word just was not in my vocabulary so I knew they were lying. A couple months earlier Early would have known they were lying as well. But now he had seen the Confederate flag in my room and our friendship had drifted a bit and so he believed them. He ran up and pushed me and started asking me if I said that. He was ready to fight me over it.
Now, I must tell you that as a 13 year old I was no stranger to getting in fights. As I said, I was picked on a lot when I was young and I had begun to believe the best way to deal with that was to fight. So when Early first pushed me I was ready to fight. I put my fists up before I even knew what was going on. Teachers were close by however, so our fight was broken up before it started. But with the teachers in between us Early began yelling and asking if I called him a nigger. My anger from being pushed was gone and I saw in his eyes, beyond the anger, the same look from when he found that flag in my closet. Early was hurt. The kid he had stuck up for, played basketball with and laughed with, in his mind, held a confederate flag and had called him the worst name a white kid could call a black kid. I tried telling him it was a lie but the damage had already been done.
Early and I never fought, but we were never really friends again either. Over the years we would see each other and always say hello, and when we got older we would even be happy to see each other after so many years had passed, but it was always just a cheerful hello and how have you been and then we’d go our separate ways.
So this is a very long story to make a point. After Early found those confederate flags in my closet I got rid of them. I didn’t know anything about being politically correct or systematic racism. All I knew was that this symbol hurt my friend and any symbol that hurt my friend was not one I wanted laying around my room. I learned a valuable lesson through all of that. A lesson that I believe my fellow southerners could glean from.
You see, it really does not matter what a certain flag or symbol represents to you. If you want to be a person who promotes unity, you must consider what that symbol means for the person seeing it. Also, for many of us white southerners, the history we associate with the confederate flag is from the mid 1800’s. For many of our black brothers and sisters the history they associate with it is from the mid to late 1900’s. As this country was desegregated, the opponents of integration would often waive the confederate flag at black kids as they attempted to just attend a school which also educated white kids. In the 60’s and 70’s the waving of this flag was often accompanied by racist chants and slurs and signs.
Our problem as a culture is that we often only consider what we believe when deciding to do certain things. If we were to consider those around us, we may be able to make more progress towards unity. We must learn to see the world through other people’s eyes. Everyone experiences the world differently and if we can try to understand how our friends, and even our enemies, see the world, then perhaps we can make the world a better place.
I’m not saying the flag should be outlawed or not sold or anything. Legality does not help heart issues. What I am saying is that as individuals, we should consider what we are projecting onto others as we waive certain banners.
Let us raise love as our only banner. Let us raise acceptance as our prime virtue. Let us stop fighting for our rights and start laying them down for the good of our friends. We are all connected, we are all a part of the same pie here.
Love well my friends, and may your friends always know the depth of your love for them.