Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Talking with the sons of Confederate veterans
I once found myself behind a pickup truck in Jackson, Mississippi that had bumper stickers of the American flag AND the Confederate battle flag. I’m sure it made sense to the driver, but all I could think was: Which is it, buddy? Was not one specifically designed to negate the other?
It was a perfect illustration of how the rebel flag’s meaning has been transformed over the years. In the late eighties, when Mississippi was preparing to vote on whether to retain its current state flag, which includes the Confederate battle flag in its canton corner, I saw a few bumper stickers touting the flag with the words “Heritage Not Hate.” It may have been true in the eyes of the people who sported the bumper sticker, but a heritage that encompasses racial supremacy is naturally going to offend people of other races. The KKK is partly to blame, though the problem obviously runs much deeper than that. Regardless of how you view the Confederate flag, it was the symbol of a nation that sought to secede from the U.S., and one that officially embraced human slavery.
I wrote in a recent post about the Neshoba County Fair that I’d like nothing better than to see black people co-opt the flag, so we can be done with the wedge it drives between the races. Personally, I’ve never been flag-oriented, having observed that symbols are easily perverted. Plus, any kind of nationalism makes me wary. People whom I mistrust and even revile have waved the American flag, too. As a white southerner I’m not personally offended by the rebel flag, but I don’t feel a strong attachment to it, either, and I understand why some people don’t like it. All of which came to mind when I was invited to speak to a group that calls itself the Lowry Rifles Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which meets in the fellowship hall of the tiny Central Independent Baptist Church in Pearl, Mississippi.
The book tour for Sultana is over, but I still get calls now and then from someone who wants me to talk about it to their group, and on this night it was the Lowry Rifles Camp. I was happy to oblige. I’m always interested in engaging people with different perspectives on the story.
When I arrived at the church I noticed that the vehicles in the gravel lot were mostly pickup trucks, many with Confederate battle flag ornamentation. No surprise there. What was surprising was the ritual that the 30 or so members and guests performed after their opening prayer: They pledged allegiance to the flag (the U.S. flag, that is), then to the Mississippi state flag, then to the Confederate flag, which, for those of you who aren’t familiar with such things, is different from the familiar “rebel” flag. In their salute to the Confederate flag they pledged their faithfulness to the cause it represents. I was tempted to ask, when I got to the podium, “What cause would that be?” But that would have launched a long discussion, and I had been asked there to talk about the Sultana, which carried its own subtext, seeing as how the Confederates are the enemy in my book.
Marc Allen, who introduced me, issued a bit of a disclaimer when he mentioned my book and reminded the group that their common interest is history, first and foremost. He seemed to be preparing them to listen to a sympathetic treatment of Yankees. And I think he was right, they were interested primarily in history. Everyone listened to my Yankee story and asked thoughtful questions afterward. I could not have felt more welcome.
When it comes to racial matters I often like to transpose words and vantage points as a sort of test. Say there’s an article about racism, which typically means white racism, though there are clearly other kinds; I like to transpose the words “black” and “white” to see how the story plays that way. It can be an illuminating exercise. In this case I wondered how I’d have been received at this meeting if I had turned out to be black, which would be the antithesis of something that happened several times during the tour for my book Mississippi in Africa, when black audiences were surprised to find that I’m white. I like to think that most people are welcoming by nature, and that it is only in the heat of the moment that they get ornery and hateful. Then again, back in the sixties the moment got heated in places exactly like the Central Independent Baptist Church. There was no way to know how I’d have been received had I been black, but people are complicated and I’ve learned firsthand that just because someone likes the Confederate flag doesn’t mean they’re racist.
At the start of the meeting, before I was introduced, one of the members of the group made a few announcements, one of which concerned a recent news item that the SEC was considering withdrawing its upcoming tournament in Mississippi due to continuing controversy over the state flag. This elicited groans from the audience. He also mentioned a planned “burn a Confederate flag day” in Arkansas, in opposition to a tea party rally, which elicited a few gasps. What really seemed to irk him, though, beyond the flag-burning, was the association of the Confederate flag with the tea party, which he considered offensive.
Growing up as a white boy in Jackson I had a certain fondness for rebel soldiers, who were clearly the more romantic of the two teams in the civil war. They were our people, and a few of them were considered heroic. Later, when I was a student at Ole Miss, before the administration grew sensitive to the problem the university’s symbol, the Confederate battle flag, posed for its athletic recruitment program, I enjoyed seeing the sea of rebel flags on our side of the stadium during football games. We were the South. We were different. We were rebels. Only later did I come to understand that we weren’t the South, exactly. We were a part of the South, and the flag meant something entirely different to some of the other parts. I’d had the luxury of not having to worry about the flag’s deeper meaning. It wasn’t one side in a civil war game. Though I felt no heartache over the eventual banishment of the flag from the stadium, neither do I automatically judge people who see it as a symbol of something they admire. Flags, clearly, can mean different things to different people.
The obvious answer to the question, “Which is it?” is that conservative politics is the common ground over which the otherwise contradictory flags simultaneously wave. But I suspect there was more at work in the fellowship hall of the Central Independent church, in part because of something Marc Allen told me afterward. As he was talking about his group’s mission to restore, save and maintain local civil war cemeteries (many of which are, for a multitude of reasons, endangered), he told me it doesn’t matter to them whether the graves are of Union or Confederate dead. “Whatever side they fought on, their memory should be respected,” he said.
Time heals all wounds, I suppose. The Lowry Rifles Camp may not have diversity in its mission statement, but it’s more inclusive than you might think. There were more than a few women among them, including one from Indiana, and they truly did seem as interested in the stories of Union soldiers as they were in the stories of Confederates. I don’t know how they’d react to a black person who expressed an interest in joining, in that black soldiers fought on both sides during the civil war, but I doubt that’s a call they’ll have to make any time soon. They’re pretty deep into the white southern thing, as evidenced by the items for sale on the table, which you can see in the picture that accompanies this post. They’re the Sons of Confederate Veterans, meeting in a Baptist church in famously white Pearl, Mississippi.
Still, it was interesting to go to a place where those divisive symbols – Rebel flag decals, patches, car tags – were actually on sale, and find that they did not seem to be a rallying point for hatred. On the contrary.
As we lingered outside after the meeting, watching distant lightning fracture the night sky, a boy of about 12, nicknamed Bubba, who had earlier been inducted into the Lowry Rifles Camp, listened to Allen express his deep dismay over the sale, on eBay, of items he was certain had been pilfered from battlefields, including some that were likely exhumed from graves. His point was that some people do not share the SCV’s reverence for the past. Obviously, that reverence is being handed down, as evidenced by Bubba’s induction into the camp. The problem is that the past, in Mississippi, is fraught with perils, and it provides the perfect context for a battle flag to come into play.