The times they are a changin’.
It’s the title of a rather famous song by Bob Dylan, released as the title track of his 1964 album of the same name. He wrote it to create an anthem of change for the time.
The song fits my mood right now. Listen. Remember: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abGzxWuLQP8.
We do change, right? We’re not the same people we were decades ago, right? We grow. Or de-evolve. We become better people. Or demons in human flesh.
In 1976, I joined a Civil War re-enactment group, a Confederate regiment, the 26th North Carolina. It was a way for me to learn about the life of a soldier in the 1860s. One summer during my college years I’d drawn meticulous maps of Civil War battlefields, places in rural America that would collect forever-bloody names like Antietam, Gettysburg and The Wilderness. I’d read the popular Civil War books, both from the late 19th Century and from modern times. With wonderful grandparents, I’d explored some of the battlefields, even watched my Grandpa Frog carve his initials into a grinding wheel cycle at Appomattox Courthouse. But I wanted more… I wanted to live the life of a common Civil War soldier. So I became a re-enactor.
Where am I going with these thoughts? Here’s where: Had the Charleston AME church killings happened in June 1976, not June 2015, 24-year-old Mike Staton probably would have favored not removing the rebel battle flag from the staff in front of the Confederate soldiers memorial at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia. The Mike Staton of 2015 says: “Take the banner down!”
Back in ’76, I had a Confederate battle flag. I didn’t fly it from a flagpole outside my Lancaster, Ohio, apartment. I wasn’t that stupid. But I did have it draped across a piano bench I used as a coffee table in my West Fair Avenue apartment.
Thirty-nine years ago the battle flag meant not only respecting the heritage of Southern soldiers who fought for the Confederacy, it also represented an anti-establishment philosophy of youth against the staid ideas of older generations. At least that’s how I saw it. Having that flag said: “I’m a free spirit, a rebel, don’t fence me in.”
Decades later, I can say I chose a bad symbol. It now belongs to militia groups, skinheads and other racist haters who’d like nothing better than to carry it into battle against progressives of every color who believe in racial equality. Their goal? The subjugation of inferior races. They want to roll back the gains of the civil rights movement.
Think I’m wrong? Let’s weigh the flag in a balance. The flag as a symbol of Southern heritage and the courage of CSA soldiers versus the flag as a symbol of segregation and racism. I know which would win. Just look at these photos of Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old who executed the nine black Christians inside the downtown Charleston church earlier this month. He loves that flag.
From 1962 to 2000 the battle flag of the Confederacy flew above South Carolina’s Statehouse. It was raised up the flagpole as a defiant go-to-hell gesture aimed at the civil rights movement and the Kennedy brothers, U.S. President John Kennedy and his brother Robert, the U.S. attorney general. At the dawning of the 21st Century – more than thirteen decades after General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered – a protest movement induced South Carolina politicians to shift the flag from its perch above the Statehouse to the nearby Confederate Soldiers Memorial.
Now let’s move forward to June 2015 and Roof’s murderous bid to incite a white versus black civil war. In mourning, South Carolina leaders lowered the U.S. and South Carolina flags to half-mast. Just a few hundred yards away, though, the battle flag continued to fly at full mast on Statehouse grounds – the emblem borne into battle against Abraham Lincoln’s Boys in Blue, the emblem of Confederate states that went to war to preserve their way of life. Way of life is a code-word phrase for the Antebellum South’s peculiar institution – slavery.
In the last week or so, a new civil war has erupted online, the defenders of Southern heritage against progressives who find it offensive to see the battle flag flying high on State Capitol grounds after the massacre of nine worshipping African-Americans inside the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, the city where the Civil War began on April 12, 1861. The war has gotten quite vicious. One woman, Connie from Alabama, has mounted a spirited defense of the Confederacy and Southern Rights including the legal right for Southern states to secede from the Union.
In comments below a Charleston Gazette news story, Connie wrote: “I think you just hate white Southerners. For me, the Confederate flag is a symbol of heritage, and it is completely immaterial to me whether you buy that or not. You and your opinions about it are irrelevant, capisce?”
In a later comment, she wrote, “If your people had wanted to end slavery, they didn’t have to send an army to kill Southerners. All they had to do was quit buying the cotton. Why do you suppose they didn’t?”
As if charging into a hailstorm of Yankee minie balls, Connie continued, “There was nothing in the Constitution that prohibited secession, nothing that delegated the power to prohibit secession to the United States. They were bullying the South back into the Union at the point of a bayonet. They destroyed the federal (voluntary) union and made this country a prison states.”
A prison? This woman is living in the wrong time. I almost offered to make my time machine available to transport her back to 1861 where she belongs. But then I thought it might be more appropriate to take her to May 1856 so she could give caning lessons to U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina so he could do a better job of smashing his cane on the head of U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an abolitionist and prominent leader of the Republican Party. Earlier, Sumner had given a fiery speech blasting what has become known as Bloody Kansas, a mini-civil war that offered a foretaste of what would come in five years. It was a fight between anti-slavery Free-Staters and pro-slavery Border Ruffians from Missouri. In Sumner’s speech, he launched a tirade against South Carolina’s Sen. Andrew Butler. Of course, Brooks had to defend Butler’s honor, just like Connie is defending the South’s honor.
Remember Connie saying the North and the South could have settled their differences short of war? Did Brooks settle his differences with Sumner peacefully? In 1859, did John Brown, abolitionist and veteran of the Kansas war, have second thoughts and not conduct the raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia? Of course not. The raid for weapons failed and slaves did not rise against their white masters. Brown was captured and later hanged.
In the war, Union troops sang a song about John Brown. “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the ground. But his soul goes marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah. Glory, glory, hallelujah. His soul goes marching on.” Julia Ward Howe heard troops singing the song while they paraded near Washington, D.C. They inspired her to write new lyrics for the tune, The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
I recently read a blog post of a Civil War historian who writes, “If you’ve convinced yourself that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of slavery and racism, you’ve managed to ignore what pretty much every prominent Confederate of the 1860s said.” He then provides links to dozens of speeches and writings of Southerners of the mid-19th Century. The first takes readers to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech of March 21, 1861, delivered in Savannah, Georgia. Read aloud and listen to his defense of secession. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
Stephens then pointed out where Virginian Thomas Jefferson went wrong. “The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions – African slavery as it exists among us – the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right. What was conjecture with him is now realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and still stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence the institution would be evanescent and pass away. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a government built upon it – when the storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”
There you have it… the Confederate States of America went to war to preserve slavery. That’s why Union troops sang John Brown’s Body Lies A-Mouldering In The Grave, and why slaves ran away from plantations to follow Union troops when they drew near. Nowadays, apologists for slavery like to point out that some freed black men owned slaves. My answer? Evil comes in all colors.
It’s not been an easy road for many blacks since the Civil War. Until recent times they’ve had to contend with Separate-But-Equal laws and voting disenfranchisement. Think about it for a second. Antebellum whites described slaves as shiftless. Today, many conservative whites continue to label blacks as shiftless, as welfare abusers, as thugs ready to kill. You see it all the time in posts found on Facebook and Twitter. It’s depressing.
For decades after the Civil War blacks were terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan and often lynched without trial. And as portrayed in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, they were found guilty if they got a trial – even when the preponderance of evidence pointed to their innocence.
As a kid in the ‘50s and ‘60s I’d watch old movies about the Civil War. Always, the Yanks were the bad guys and the Johnny Rebs were the heroes defending their homesteads from the invader. America before the Civil Rights Era fell in love with the Lost Cause fable popularized by another novel, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. This one even included the scalawags and carpetbaggers of Reconstruction.
Nowadays, in some quarters, the Confederates are heroes for standing up for States’ Rights. It’s all mixed in with the heated political rhetoric that states need to take back the rights and powers usurped by the federal government. Texas politicians like to bring up that word many Union veterans had thought they’d buried in the bloody soil of battlefields from Pennsylvania to Florida – secession. The Civil War and its turbulent aftermath continue to ravage this nation 150 years after its ending. Dylann Roof killed nine African Americans because he thinks like Alexander Stephens. We need to bury the hatreds that linger long after the end of the Civil War. That’s why that flag shouldn’t fly on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds – even if it’s on a staff at the war memorial and not atop the Statehouse dome.
I’ll end this post with the first stanza of a song sung by Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit. You can hear her sing it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1hm5fxJEkY
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze.
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”
I’ve reconsidered. I’m not going to end this with Holiday’s Strange Fruit and the 1930s in Dixie. Instead, I’m going to take you to Charleston earlier this week – Sunday, June 21. Mourners from the Mount Pleasant side and the Charleston side marched across the Arthur Ravenel Bridge at dusk in a show of unity. They met in the middle, clapped and sang, This Little Light of Mine. Black and white hands clasped, a sign of the future when – in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. – “And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men, white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
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Since I wrote this piece in the wee hours of Monday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has called for the flag’s removal. So has U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican candidate for President. It’s a start, but flag supporters will fight it to the bitter end – and could ultimately prevail. The state legislature convened a special session on the budget Tuesday and agreed to debate the flag removal once the final budget gets approval later this summer. Budget first then – when passions have cooled – the Confederate battle flag. Hopefully, when they do debate, they’ll look at the empty seat of their fellow legislator, Sen. Clementa Pinckney, pastor at Emanuel, killed in the massacre.
For myself, I see no problem allowing the flags in cemeteries (flagpole flags in Confederate cemeteries, smaller flags beside soldier graves), monuments in battlefield parks, and in museums – not on democratically elected Statehouse grounds. South Carolina’s elected politicians represent all the Palmetto State’s people – not just whites.