I own a Confederate flag.
I grew up in East Tennessee, and the Confederate flag branded everything we looked at in our high school — even the cheerleaders had “butt flags” that flapped over the back of their miniskirts at football games. We were the Maryville High School “Rebels.”
Growing up, the flag meant little more to me than school spirit, pep rallies, and Southern pride … until I left East Tennessee.
I’ll never forget the moment things began to change. I moved into my college dorm room and established my new home at Eastern University in Philadelphia. I carefully set up my desk, put my posters on the wall, and displayed my high school yearbook — with a Confederate flag on the cover — proudly on my bookshelf.
One of my new college pals came into the room and stopped in his tracks, jaw dropping, horrified.
“What is that?” he shrieked, pointing to my yearbook.
It wasn’t long until there was an audience in the room and I was getting schooled in history.
Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s words ring true for me: “Across the south, we have a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.”
I’ll admit my first instinct those twenty years ago was defensive. No one wants to feel stupid or have folks patronize him or her. But my new friends — both black and white — were gentle with me. They displayed the perfect combination of truth and love, and I needed both. They opened my eyes to the true, historic reality of the Confederate flag and the trauma it conjures up for black people still today, not unlike Jews looking at a swastika.
By God’s grace, and thanks to the patience of good friends, this embarrassing moment became a landmark on my own journey to pursue a more just world.
Many years ago, my alma mater ditched the Confederate flag as its central symbol of pride. But I still have one in my closet down in Tennessee.
And now the entire country is in a frenzy about this relic of history.
Alabama’s capitol has taken down all four of its Confederate flags, by order of the governor. Wal-Mart, Amazon, and E-bay are pulling the flag from the shelves. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has called for the flag to be brought down. And in an epic move that will go down in history like Rosa Parks, the world watched Bree Newsome — in an act of holy disobedience — climb the 30 foot flagpole at the South Carolina capitol and remove the flag, as Scripture and prayers rolled from her lips and a liberated smile shined on her face.
In his eulogy to Clementa Pinckney, President Obama suggested it is time to take down the Confederate flag. It is a haunting reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. To remove it, as the President stirringly suggested, is not an insult to the Confederate soldiers, but an acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought — slavery — was wrong. And he is right that taking down the flag is one step among many in an honest accounting of American history, as well as a hopeful expression of God’s grace — a “modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”
We have too often been blind to the pain it stirs up. I have been blind.
We have too often ignored the ways it has been used as a weapon by folks filled with hate. I have ignored.
We have too often allowed one person’s freedom to prolong another person’s oppression. I have allowed it.
God forgive me.
And I also ask for forgiveness from the people of color in my high school and small Tennessee town who may have been hurt by the flag I waved as a teenager.
I agree with the growing consensus in our country. While private citizens are free to wear it, wave it, and tattoo it on their bodies — the Confederate flag has no place in the public square.
Its proper place is in a museum, not on the grounds of a public building. Along with the NAACP and so many others, I support the nonviolent act of removing this historic symbol of injustice from public spaces. In fact, I’m thinking of calling Bree Newsome and seeing if she’ll give me a climbing lesson.
Certainly the flag represents a different character in history than the swastika, but both represent deep trauma, agonizing pain, and injustice. And they both belong in the same place — a museum where we can remember and grieve. Placing the flag in a museum ensures that we cannot erase history or forget the mistakes of the past. But it also reminds us that we are not held hostage to history, and a better future is possible if we want it.
My only question is what to do with the Confederate flag that still gathers dust in my childhood home down in Tennessee. Is there a museum I can mail it to?