My first realization that some found the Confederate flag offensive came in 1972. I was a junior in Lee High School, in Huntsville, Alabama. We were the Lee High Generals, and our gym wall featured a huge mural of General Lee on his horse carrying a rebel flag – until we came to school one day and found that the flag portion had been painted over. For an Alabama school in that era, integration had gone fairly well for us. But my white friends were offended that someone would mess with General Lee, and our thoughts did not go much deeper than that. Maybe we would have thought more deeply if we had bothered to ask our black friends what they thought.
I had grown up reading Civil War history. My scout troop camped at Shiloh and Chickamauga, and I was well versed in the battles of that war. In the romanticized ways those stories were told to me I came to delight in how the underdog south and its generals outfoxed the damnyankees (one word). For me the stars and bars were a symbol of independence, bravery, and regional pride. So I took great pleasure in the banner of General Lee with the flag, and had a hard time understanding why anyone felt the need to paint it over.
But I was not seeing with the eyes of those descended from the independent and brave people my ancestors enslaved. The flag obviously meant something else entirely to them, and particularly so when they repeatedly saw its most enthused supporters waving it at rallies filled with contempt for them. Sometime in my twenties my view of the flag changed. The thinly veiled contempt of many flag enthusiasts for the black people who had become my friends persuaded me that the banner was now fit only for museums, and not state houses or public rallies.
It’s amazing that we’re still having this same conversation 43 years later! I am grateful for the Republican leaders in South Carolina who are taking a political risk to do what some wise Huntsville school leader did with a paint brush all the way back in 1972. Better (very) late than never.
No longer proud,
P.S. The best simple statement that I’ve seen about the flag by a white Christian southerner came from Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist leader.