It’s not just the Confederate Flag

(1) Franklin, Tennessee

Last winter, my girlfriend and I visited my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee and toured a few Civil War battlegrounds and cemeteries south of town. We stopped in a store that sold children’s toys dedicated to the Civil War: Confederate and Union army caps, toy troops, et cetera.

Back at my parents’ house, we talked about the day with my mother. We brought up the fact that my girlfriend, a Californian, had not been taught much about the Civil War (and certainly, not anything about the South’s remembrance of it). My mother shed light on why the South remembers the Civil War so much: because the war obliterated the South.

The North destroyed eleven Southern towns and burned 45 court houses. Battles wreaked havoc on Southern farms and roads. Forty percent of farm implements and tools were destroyed; most livestock was lost; women lost their husbands and sons who did the farm work. During the war, a northern blockade prevented southern states from exporting cotton. After the war, cotton dropped in price, delaying efforts to rebuild. The South was ruined.

This, my mother reminded us, didn’t happen centuries ago. It happened so recently that it affected her grandparents. My grandparents, born in 1902 and 1915, grew up in this post-Reconstruction poverty. So much so that the Great Depression didn’t really affect them. It didn’t change their already poor circumstances. My mother, born in the 1940s, grew up hearing about this destruction of the South.1

The identity of the South has been linked to this war for more than 150 years. To be Southern means something different than to be Midwestern, for example. No one went to war against the Midwest. No one obliterated the Midwest.

(2) High School

I grew up in markedly different circumstances than my parents. Born 100 years after the Reconstruction, I saw the Civil War as a history topic, not a family discussion. I would only begin to understand how significant it was when I left the South as an adult and learned how little my friends in other states had studied it. I had studied it much less than my mother yet much more than my friends outside the South because I’d grown up inside the history. Most of the battles of the Civil War took place in Tennessee and Virginia. It is impossible to drive the streets of my hometown without seeing historical placards marking battle sites or cemeteries.

In high school, there was a time when I noticed my prep school peers adopt southern accents. Children who’d had the same education as I suddenly spoke with a new twang. We’d never been taught “Southern pride” in school but it started emerging as an identity. It’s easy to see why: at 16, with their first taste of freedom, kids searched for a way to belong and found one ready-made. It became “cool” to wear a beaten-up baseball cap, listen to country music (which in the 80s and 90s was nothing like the mainstream genre of today), drive a truck, post a rebel flag sticker on the bumper, and go muddin’. All this among children studying Latin at a non-religious boys’ school.

In many ways, it was no different than me shaving the sides of my head, buying combat boots, and listening to punk. It was another ready-made identity. They went for the cultural; I went for the counter-cultural.

I saw the adoption of Southern “pride” amongst my classmates as ridiculous, not offensive. But the problem is apparent all those years later, now that I have been educated so recently about the Reconstruction: as kids we saw the symbols and heard the rhetoric, but we didn’t understand why the memory lingered.

(3) Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate General, widely respected and feared. His personal history is full of contradictions. On one hand, his farewell to his troops is a genuine call for peace:

Civil war, such as you have just passed through naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred, and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings; and as far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate friendly feelings towards those with whom we have so long contended, and heretofore so widely, but honestly, differed.

A post-war speech of Forrest’s to a meeting of black Southerners seeking racial reconciliation is similarly warm and peaceful:

We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people…I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none.

On the other hand, he was a brutal warrior.

Even if we were to accept the Southern narrative that the “War of Northern Aggression” was about more than the issue of slavery, we would have to acknowledge at least two major asterisks in Forrest’s legacy:

1) Forrest led the attack on Fort Pillow in 1864. It is widely argued that after Union troops surrendered, Forrest’s troops conducted a massacre of unarmed men. There is much controversy over this incident though it does seem that the rebels killed a greater number of black soldiers (80% of their total) compared to white (40%).

2) Forrest may have been the first Grand Wizard of the KKK.

His legacy is, at best, controversial.

Off Interstate 65 North, between Brentwood and Nashville, Tennessee, stands a 25-foot-tall statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, erected in 1998. Although Tennessee has 32 historical markers to Forrest (more than those dedicated to the state’s three former presidents), this statue –while publicly facing –is privately owned.

The statue was created by an amateur sculptor, Jack Kershaw, who prior to his sculpting “was best known as an attorney to James Earl Ray, who was convicted of killing Martin Luther King Jr.

The statue is surrounded by 13 flagpoles, each flying the flag of a Confederate State as well as the Confederate Battle Flag. And let’s be clear about that: the red square flag with the blue X and white stars –that which was painted atop the car of my childhood heroes, Bo and Luke Duke – is the battle flag of the Confederacy. It is not the flag of the Confederate States of America. It does not symbolize an attempt to build a separate nation among southern states. It symbolizes those states going to war.

While the statue is ridiculous (I once compared it to a Yosemite Sam dipped in lacquer) and the flags are in tatters, it still stands, unobscured by trees that the state government could have planted on the public land between this ugly monument and the interstate.2

(4) Connecting these dots

I am interested in the point at which belief becomes truth. Belief is seductive: it lets us fill in the gaps of knowledge with faith. (I.e. we’ll never know General Forrest’s exact role in the KKK but we could, if we wanted, shed our uncertainty with faith.)

The history of the South is littered with uncertainty and subjectivity. It is ripe for belief, for those leaps of faith that can restore a cohesive narrative. And indeed, because the tent poles of belief exist here, plenty of people become believers.

When my peers in prep school suddenly found their Southern identity, they already had anthems telling Neil Young that a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow and that the South’s gonna do it again. (In my counter-cultural pose, I often asked, “Do what again? Lose?”)

Those newly-proud Southerners also had the symbolism of their identity: the battle flag, the name “Rebels,” the countless battlegrounds and cemeteries, and, for the past 17 years, a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest rearing back on one of the 29 horses he had shot out from under him.

They had the Civil War mythology to dig into: heroes, villains, and an ideology that argues the war was about more than slavery.

But the greatest factor cementing this identity is that a war was waged against the South. There is no more galvanizing event for a marginalized culture. Any secondary group worth its weight has needed an aggressor to define its cause as righteous: the Mormons, North Korea, the Rebel Alliance.

When you’re a young person trying to establish your identity, Southern pride offers an easy one. It’s all put together, like any religion or nationalist system.

Enter: Dylann Roof.

On June 17, 2015, Mr. Roof attended a Bible study at the predominantly black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina for an hour before shooting 9 people to death. According to a witness, he said that African-Americans were “taking over our country.” He told law enforcement that he hoped to start a race war.

This is a young man full of dangerous, murderous beliefs. But he is not insane. His beliefs are simply the bullshit of Southern pride stripped of the importance of history.

He grew up in a culture that forged its identity amidst the ashes of its war-scorched fields and literally had a gun placed in his hands (for his birthday, from his father). Yet, it’s likely he never knew why his parents’ parents’ parents’ parents clung to their Southern pride. I’m a generation older than he and I only barely remembered details of the Reconstruction. It’s easy to grow up in the South and be aware of the pride, yet ignorant of the pain that created it.

As the details rolled in this week –pictures showing him in a jacket with symbols of apartheid, stories of his racist “jokes”–I hate to say I wasn’t surprised. We load guns with ideology as well as ammunition and this young man had grown up in or near the city whose Confederate troops first fired on Union soldiers and where a Confederate battle flag still flies over the capitol building.

(5) Creating disciples

If you offer the infrastructure of a belief system, it is easy to create disciples. You can’t put statutes of war criminals along the highway and flags of war atop state buildings and not expect young people –eager to find their identity –to fill in the blanks themselves.

It is not enough to say “don’t teach racism.” We shouldn’t teach a mythology that excludes racism of the past. The South was destroyed by the Civil War. The Union committed many crimes against innocent Southerners. But the South defended slavery. And there is no justification for that. It doesn’t matter that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus when Southern slave-owners had been practicing habeamus corpora for 100 years. It doesn’t matter that “states’ rights” were trampled when individual rights were non-existent in the South. It doesn’t matter that General Forrest was an heroic commander if he was also a member of the KKK.

We also can’t simply condemn “the South.” The South isn’t more racist than anywhere else (and often, it’s less racist because its gentility overrules its bigotry). But the South has an easy heritage of racism. If a person wants to embrace it, there’s an institutional history of racism awaiting adoption in the guise of “pride.”

Condemning the South ignores the long-lasting effects of war. It ignores how war defines a place and culture. It forgets how war creates radicals. We must bear this in mind whenever we advocate war elsewhere in the world. Where else are we galvanizing generations of fundamentalists? Where else are we creating a ready-made “rebel” identity?

(6) Towards understanding

We Southerners have to recognize this ourselves, take the flags down, and destroy the idols. Ask ourselves: what is it like for a descendant of slaves to drive past streets named for Robert E. Lee? Stop being precious about names. Stop having heroes. Stop being afraid of uncertainty and ambiguity.

The North destroyed more than slavery in the South. They destroyed the livelihood of Southerners too poor to have ever owned slaves. This is true but it never justified the South’s actions. Slavery is an act of war. And what’s worse are the decades of mis-remembered pride, the creation of a belief system that only needs an injection of hate to become a crusade.

We have to move towards recognizing that just because the other side was wrong, it doesn’t mean we were right. Our identity can’t be so unsteady that it’s balanced by two straw men: a domineering federalist and an heroic rebel. To paraphrase our modern Buddha, Liz Lemon, we have to recognize that all God’s children are terrible.

We have to take responsibility for the belief system we’ve constructed. Let’s not give sociopaths a cultural excuse. We cannot wave the symbols of racism from our public areas, name our sports teams after soldiers who fought to maintain slavery, sing songs celebrating our difference from the rest of the country, and expect our children to respect every individual.

The Southern identity needs to move beyond these bellicose symbols to promote our gentility, our family ties, and our unsweetened cornbread. Any symbol that requires an explanation as to why it’s not racist confirms its racist symbolism. Any hero with asterisks next to his legacy is no hero. Forget those symbols to transcend this sesquicentennial argument. We need to teach our children that the South made the biggest mistake of all in a free country: believing that one individual is superior to another.

And we –the adults who live in this culture– must remind ourselves that war may liberate but often at the cost of corrupting generations of minds. Defeat in battle does not create a change of heart in the vanquished. The Southerners making the “heritage not hate” argument are making the same mistake the Yankees did when they burned southern farms. They are continuing the battle after the war has ended.

This article originally appeared on Human Parts.


1 It’s worth noting here that my mother and I grew up on either sides of the civil rights debate. The modern presence of the Confederate Flag was driven by the South’s opposition to civil rights. South Carolina only raised the battle flag of the Confederacy over their capitol in 1962. So the stories my mother heard about the post-war South were told before the Confederate Flag’s presence was renewed in the South. By my childhood, civil rights was not as contentious an issue and the flag was just there. (back to the story)

2 The state has threatened to plant trees or build a wall to obscure the monument. Bill Dorris, the owner of the property, told local public radio, “I’ve got some 1,800-foot flagpoles. I could put them up starting tomorrow. They’re going to have to build a helluva wall and a helluva bunch of trees to block all that.” I took the photo above on 19 June 2015 and you can see that the flags are in tatters. Most poles were empty of flags. Also worth noting: “Dorris says he’s not racist, though he also calls slavery a form of ‘social security’ for African Americans.” (back to the story)