Some of my readers who know my dedication to equality and reconciliation, and my opposition to the baggage that characterizes much of southern religion, might be a bit surprised by this post. I have been a strong civil rights advocate for 45 years and for years was a member of the NAACP. I am also an advocate for LGBT rights and full acceptance in our churches. I believe in equal rights for everyone.
Yet I am somewhat concerned with recent discussion about the removal of various Confederate monuments around the South.
My Southern Heritage and Pride
I am a Southerner. In fact, I am a 9th generation Southerner. My Chastain ancestor came to Virginia in 1700. My lineage moved from there to Tennessee (before it was a state), South Carolina, Georgia, and then to Alabama where I was born. In 1955 we moved to Florida (when Florida was still very southern).
My first American ancestor, Pierre, was an immigrant doctor who helped establish a Huguenot refugee town in Virginia. My distant grandfather, John Chastain, was a pioneer in bringing the Baptist movement to the South in the late 1700s. And I am proud that my direct grandfather in Alabama, Edward Chastain, actively supported the Union; and his sons fought for the Union–not the Confederacy—just as many Southerners did from almost every state.
My native language is a northwest Alabama Southern Appalachian dialect that is heavily influenced by Scots-Irish, though I now speak standard English (but with an accent and a few words and expressions I refuse to give up).
I have a strong sense of Southern pride like many people do for their home regions. Southern pride is pride in a culture with a long history, which is about far more than just cotton and the dark story of slavery. To me it is sweet tea, and corn bread and milk, and fried okra, and banana pudding, and watermelon. It is southern ballads and bluegrass music. It is majestic Live Oaks, Spanish moss, southern heat, coastal beaches, and a slower-paced lifestyle. It is George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Boone, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Martin Luther King.
For me it is also supporting civil rights, learning to accept evolution, abandoning generations of Baptist fundamentalism, watching rockets going into space at the Cape, and eagerly embracing the future.
For my generation, Southern pride was also sharing an identity with other Southerners against the common condescending arrogance of northern folks who assumed that everyone knows, including us, that Southerners are a backward, ignorant, and conquered people.
How could I be conquered when my family was Union?
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Southerners were often seen as a homogenous group, all of whom were complicit in slavery and the 1860s secession from the United States. This attitude is not as pronounced as it was decades ago, but it is still recognizable.
The Confederate Flag
This is why the Confederate flag was a precious symbol to me, because it represented my culture as a unique shared experience–it had nothing to do with racism. But 30 years ago I noticed the flag increasingly being used as a symbol of prejudice, hate, and hostility by those who vehemently opposed equal rights for Black citizens, as it had been used similarly generations earlier by the Klan, who were now but a memory. As resistance to Black equality became more aggressive, the Confederate flag was co-opted to serve this horrid mindset.
Though it was a great emotional loss to me, I abandoned the Confederate flag because its meaning had changed, and it was used primarily to hurt and marginalize people. It was no longer seen as a symbol of Southern culture but of a Southern hate that did not represent me and many other true Southerners. So I said goodbye to my flag.
In recent discussions, I have heard a lot of mention of the Confederate ‘Battle’ Flag. I don’t ever remember hearing it called that. It was just the Confederate flag; the battle was long over, and for many the flag symbolized only a shared general Southern culture. But, indeed, in recent decades the flag has become a ‘battle’ flag once more, and because of that I believe the Confederate flag should come down as it did in South Carolina, and come down quickly, from all government facilities where it yet remains; it is now an affront to many of our Southern citizens, both Black and white. And it is an embarrassment to us for outsiders to witness such displays in government spaces.
Let’s remove it now. Of course, private citizens will continue to display the flag as is their right. Let them do so; it still means different things to different people–but if they are haters they do not represent the rest of us.
Confederate Monuments and Roads—Let’s Have Some Balance
Not all Confederate soldiers fought for slavery. Many were defending their homelands that were being invaded. Others were impressed into service against their will. In fact, every Confederate state, except South Carolina, had at least one unit in the Union army.
Many southern towns and cities have monuments honoring their fallen soldiers in various wars, and I have noticed that it is common to list both fallen Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers on the same monument. Shall we take them down?
Robert E. Lee is an important historical figure for many reasons; shall we remove such a person from street names and memorials? There are some monuments that should be removed; those of Nathan Bedford Forrest are candidates because of his leadership role in the Ku Klux Klan. Southern states might want to review statues of Confederate heroes they have contributed to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol Building to see if they might have more appropriate citizens to feature there.
But there must be a limit to erasing the history and culture of a people by destroying their historical monuments. They mean much more than celebration of white supremacy. I don’t want to cause pain to people who are offended by them, but who cares about our pain? Do we no longer matter?
It is sometimes said that conquered people are not allowed to keep their monuments, but did we agree with the Taliban when they destroyed the historic Buddhist monuments? They thought the monuments were evil and idolatrous, and Buddhists had been gone for centuries, why should the Taliban not have destroyed them? Of course this is misguided thinking–they were historical monuments.
This is pertinent to the demands of some that the Stone Mountain Monument (see graphic above) be destroyed. That massive monument is historical and can be used, along with the related park, as an artifact through which we can explore all aspects of the Civil War. To deface it or destroy it would be as uncivilized as the Taliban actions.
Let me be clear that I have no admiration for the three generals depicted on the mountain. The case would be the same if it were a memorial to Union General Sherman who burned Atlanta and brought it to its knees. It would be the same if it were a memorial to the Cherokee who were removed from the area. These are all part of Southern history, and such significant historical monuments should not be destroyed.
Confederate monuments should be considered on a case-by-case basis, but an alternative is to recognize the worst of them as relics of an unfortunate past for educational purposes. Those who give them a higher meaning are growing fewer and less influential.
My driving mission in life is to spread love and acceptance to all people as Jesus taught us by word and example. I agree with opposing active symbols of hate and violence against any person or group, but most Southerners are not haters—is there no love for us? No empathy? Must we be stripped of our history and identity even as we support the rights and deep feelings of others? Are we to be punished just because we are Southerners and respect our heritage?
Or is there a balance?
I have shared my heart, and I am prepared for heavy push-back; just be as respectful as possible.