by Ron Wells.
The issue of flying the Confederate flag has revived a spirited debate here in the South. What follows is my contribution to that debate.
Fair disclosure first. I am a US-born child of immigrants. My parents, born in a British Crown colony, became US citizens as soon as the process allowed. While economic and social advancement for them and their children was a prime motive for their coming to America, they soon found themselves true believers in what America stood for – that all are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights.
We flew the flag outside our home on all possible occasions. We were taught not only to believe in America but also in its principles; like we say in the Pledge, “liberty and justice for all.”
In short, I grew up in Massachusetts. I taught in Michigan for thirty-five years. I retired a bit early and moved to Tennessee in support of my wife’s academic career. The different regions view patriotism and the flag in different ways. The rest of this piece is about the South.
A bishop in my denomination (Episcopal) recently called the Confederate flag a “symbol of hate.” Well, that is at least a debatable assertion. Of course there is a small minority of White supremacists that wrap themselves up in the battle flag. But for the majority of White southerners the Stars and Bars is about heritage not hate. This is where the story becomes complex, because hate can be accused and judged while heritage must be listened to with care and respect.
The subject of the Civil War has come up a lot in recent years because of the sesquicentennial. Also, because I am a historian of the American nineteenth century I have an attuned ear to what the legendary historian of the South, C. Vann Woodward, called “The Burden of Southern History.” In part, that burden turns on now being citizens of a nation that defeated one’s ancestors. Further, it is a nation that one’s forebears tried to dismember, whose “Old Glory” they tried to take down in favor of the rebel flag. Also, there is the matter of race. The war did not start as a northern attempt to end slavery, but it ended that way. Of course, the South wanted to defend states’ rights, but we now know that the most controversial right the South wanted to defend was the right to hold slaves.
All of this complexity comes to the fore when I listen-in on southern folks talking about heritage. At a party I heard a woman tell of her pride about a great-grandfather who fought with valor at the battle of Franklin. That caused a chain-reaction of stories from others about forebears who fought in various battles. These kinds of stories are not told at parties in the North. And, this ex-pat Yankee historian had better listen and not speak much at such times.
Yet, other southern friends say more privately that while they are proud of their heritage, and of the war heroes, they now know that those great-grandfathers fought – some died – in vain, and that their cause was morally stained by the reality of the bondage suffered by the African Americans in their midst.
There is a kind of grieving process in this letting go of Southern heritage, and its symbol in the flag. The rest of us can be encouraging, not condemnatory, as our fellow Americans take down that flag, saying that we “get it,” that their heritage means a lot to them. We can also say that no one wants them to trash their flag, but to move it to a museum, where other heritage artifacts belong – just not flying over a state house. In an iconic song by a band called “The Band,” we feel that grief with our southern friends in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Yet, there is no need to drive old Dixie down again, just take it to a historical resting place.
In truth, we may come from different heritages but we have just one flag for our one nation. And, it is not just a flag, but what it stands for – what struck my parents – liberty and justice for all. Now there is a heritage worth celebrating, as much for immigrants’ kids like me as for descendants of those who fought in the Confederate Army.
This piece was originally written for a regional newspaper in Knoxville, TN. It is republished here with the author’s permission.
Ronald A. Wells is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College. He is the author of History Through the Eyes of Faith and other books. He was an editor of Fides et Historia and of The Reformed Journal. With James D. Bratt he is co-editor of the book, The Best of the Reformed Journal. He is now mostly retired and lives in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. His part-time position is Director of the Symposium on Faith and the Liberal Arts at Maryville College.