Robert E. Lee, Scarlett and me

Mary, a friend from my Washington days, is a novelist who penned “Papa Was a Boy in Gray”, a collection of reminiscences from the daughters of Confederate soldiers. She has always had an interest in history and is proud of her Southern roots. She does not have a racist bone in her body.

After the massacre in a historic black church in Charleston, there is now widespread agreement that the Battle Flag of the Confederacy should stop flying above our government buildings. We must not fool ourselves, though, that a symbolic gesture will solve our pernicious problem with race any more than the election of our first biracial president did.

Wanting to know and understand one’s heritage is good, as is interest in any period of our history. Honorable men fought on both sides of the Civil War, yes, but the “noble cause” of the Confederacy amounted to more than what present-day politicians would have us believe. We are told that the Southern states seceded in a grand gesture to defend states’ rights against federal encroachment. That theme resonates with some segments of the population ever so readily because Republican politicians complain bitterly about federal “overreach” in matters such as the Affordable Care Act.

Human beings are complex. Confederate soldiers had lives before and after the war. They were someone’s child, brother, husband or father. Celebrating their lives is good. Celebrating the cause they were fighting for is another matter.

There has always been a tendency to romanticize the past. The antebellum South, however, was more than Scarlett O’Hara’s petticoats and lovely sunsets at Tara. Mammy was not Scarlett’s friend and confidante – she was her property. The economy of the South rested on the brutal oppression of the black population brought in chains from Africa. So, while it is perfectly fine to honor one’s Confederate ancestors, theirs is not a world anyone but the most depraved bigots would want to return to. That world is what the flag symbolizes, and that is why it must come down.

 

 

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