I live in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This means that I see the Confederate Flag all the time, everywhere I go. There’s a house next to the place where I take Henry to be groomed that flies it; and I run and walk on the battlefield every day, primarily on the Southern line, which means that I regularly see little flags in front of the monuments–like the one of General Lee. [This is to say nothing of the people who mount them on their trucks….that’s something else altogether.]
I’m from Colorado, so this part of American history was not part of my upbringing in any lived sense of the word–Colorado didn’t even become a state until 1876. However, I am married to a Southerner–a Virginian, to be precise, and in the past ten years I’ve had quite education about what that means. [For example, we always refer to “General Lee” or “Robert E. Lee,” never “Bobby Lee,” no matter how good that sounds!] My husband is very proud to be from Virginia, and that heritage, and that sense of place and history are very, very important to him.
However, what he is not proud of–and in fact, detests–is the way people around here [and in the South, of course] display the Confederate Flag, as though it in some way conveys some neutral or inclusive form of Southern pride. Let’s be very clear: it doesn’t. What it connotes is racism; and in particular, the terrible, terrible manifestation of racism that was responsible for countless lynchings, house burnings, church bombs, beatings, rapes, and murders.
All this was brought home to me as I watched the movie “Selma” on Thursday night [especially appropriate, given the 50th anniversary of the first bloody march this weekend]. At the end of the movie, archival footage of the real thing was shown; and in image after image of protesters, you saw the Confederate Flag–hanging from cars, waved by individuals old and young–in every instance, wielded as a weapon against justice, peace and freedom. I couldn’t get those images out of my mind as I walked home; and as I was thinking about 21st century Gettysburg, I tried to imagine how I would feel if I were African-American and I had to walk or drive by that flag every day. It gives me the willies, and its vitriol was never, ever directed at me.
As Paul Tillich reminds us, symbols can die: they are finite, concrete and limited; and the symbol of the Confederate Flag now conveys primarily–if not only–hatred, narrow-minded bigotry and thinly-veiled threat. That’s true everywhere, even in Gettysburg–no matter how much Civil War aficionados would like us to believe otherwise. It’s time to quit flying that flag, not only for the sake of those who sacrificed their lives to challenge what it represents, but for ourselves and our society today, to continue to work to make King’s dream a reality.