Let’s talk about the Confederate Flag, y’all. It’s time.
As I write these thoughts, I’m sitting at the exact location where Confederate soldiers met the “Federal Front Line” of the Union Army during the Battle of Franklin in the Civil War. I’m not here to research. I’m here because this is where my local library happens to sit, and I’m writing while I wait to pick up up some books I put on hold.
With the renewed attention to Confederate symbols and monuments around the country this week, and especially to their removal, Liz asked if I’d be willing to share my perspective as a white woman from Nashville, Tennessee, who’s lived my whole life surrounded by them. With some hesitation — because I’m not a historian, I’m white, and I know I’m going to miss things and get some things wrong — I said yes. Of course.
I’m still learning, but I want to do the right thing, and I know I’m not alone.
Never been to my town? Here’s a quick tour.
To start with, let me give you a glimpse of what I see in my hometown every day, for those of you who have not been here.
Just today, on my short 5-mile drive to the library, I passed Rebel Circle, General’s Retreat Place, two Civil War museums, at least ten cannons that serve as minor memorials of some sort, Battle Avenue, Confederate Drive, and General N. B. Forest Drive.
As in, Nathan Bedford Forest, the first KKK Grand Wizard.
In the center of our town square, I circled a massive monument to Confederate soldiers, affectionally called “Chip” by the locals, which is surrounded by four more cannons. On the monument are the words: No country ever had truer sons, no cause nobler champions, no people bolder defenders than the brave soldiers to whose memory this stone is erected.
This is how a monument describes people who fought against our United States. “Truer sons?” It literally doesn’t even make sense.
As I drove on, I started paying attention to the street names in my town that seemed more innocuous: Adams Drive. Cleburn Drive. Strahl drive. I’ve always had a feeling that these signs represented leaders in the Confederate party, and while I’m a little embarrassed to admit I never looked further into it before today, sure enough…a quick Siri search yielded a whole list of Confederate generals matching these names.
It was wrong of me to chose convenience and ease over the work of identifying and speaking out against these things. But then, that’s in part how systemic racism and the glorification of symbols of our racist past work — you just accept them as “whats’ there” or “how it is.”
I have to do better. A lot of us do. And the ideas we were brought up with is no excuse not to evolve. As Rene Syler recently explained to Liz in a Spawned podcast interview, we are living at a time with access to more information and facts than any time in history, and yet people still choose to remain ignorant. I’m willing to acknowledge that there’s a lot I don’t know, but I’m working on it.
“The confederate flag doesn’t represent sweet tea on the porch”
It’s been surprising to me, I must admit, just how many of my own neighborhood friends are reluctant to let Confederate symbols in our town go. Sometimes it’s the people you’d least expect, and I’ll just leave it at that.
And oof, reading the thread of angry responses to fellow Tennesseean Taylor Swift’s eloquent twitter thread on dismantling Confederate statues and symbols is discouraging.
As a Tennessean, it makes me sick that there are monuments standing in our state that celebrate racist historical figures who did evil things. Edward Carmack and Nathan Bedford Forrest were DESPICABLE figures in our state history and should be treated as such.
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) June 12, 2020
The dissenters argue that these symbols are “history” or “our heritage.” A heritage that lasted five short years, I may point out. (For a bit of levity and to drive the point home, follow the #longerthantheconfederacy hashtag on Twitter.) Others argue that these symbols represent “the Southern way of life” — often a coded term as you might have guessed — or that they stand for a more complex set of values and traditions beyond racism.
Not that I’ve ever seen a statue to those other “values.” There’s no Golden Rule Boulevard in my town, that’s for sure.
Let me be 100% clear: The Confederate flag doesn’t represent sweet tea on the front porch or a friendly wave to the neighbor across the street, or lovely magnolia trees. It represents men who chose to abandon their United States of America and fight against it, to form a government that legalized the subjugation of Black human beings and to hold people as property.
Don’t take it from me. These are the words of Confederacy Vice President Alexander Stevens just a few weeks before the start of the Civil War in response to the concept that “all men are created equal”:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas. Its foundations are laid…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. This, is our new government.
It couldn’t be more plain. In Stevens’ own words, the Confederate flag is a symbol of white supremacy and the subjugation and dehumanization of Black people.
It’s horrendous and it’s evil. I just can’t see this in any other way. Stubbornly keeping that symbol in our county seal or in the Mississippi state flag isn’t “preserving history,” the way a museum or a textbook can do by offering education and context. (The Auschwitz Museum is in no way “honoring” the atrocities that happened there, but a statue to the guards there would be.) These symbols simply glorify a shameful aspect of our history and prevent us from making meaningful change to help us move forward.
I’m not Black, so I can’t possibly feel the same pain and humiliation as when a Black person encounters this flag, these symbols, these streets named for the people who would have preferred them enslaved or dead. I can only imagine if there were a Klan hood or a swastika on a state flag or seal, that more people would recognize the injustice and pain in that choice, without mumbling about “erasing history.”
To put these symbols to official use in state seals, state flags, taxpayer-funded monuments, say to Black Americans: You don’t matter. Your life is less valuable than that of your neighbors. You don’t deserve the same dignity.
Faith isn’t something we talk about on this site a lot, but for me these concepts are so tied to my Christian faith that I have to make that connection.
The Bible challenges me, As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18). If these symbols rob peace from my Black neighbors, which they inarguably do, then I must stand opposed to them. We’re told to seek justice and correct oppression in Isaiah 1:17, and I think it doesn’t get more clear than that.
Removing monuments is just a start
For me, I see even more clearly now that always been within our power to create a more welcoming, more loving community, one that’s more reminiscent of the “kingdom of heaven on earth” that Jesus spoke about so often.
Removing the symbols that honor the most egregious oppressors of Black people — even if we are so late in doing this — is just one tiny step we can take toward righting a wrong.
However, it’s not always easy, at least technically. The Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, like similar laws in many southern states, is written expressly to make it difficult to remove Confederate symbols and monuments. In fact, elected leaders have described the desire to remove tributes to “slave-owning, racist murderers” like N.B. Forrest as “hysteria” or a “knee-jerk reaction” — as if this isn’t something that Black people have lived with their entire lives, for generations.
If I may, the process of moving toward a more anti-racist society and the fight for civil rights is not something that just cropped up in 2020 as a “knee-jerk reaction” to systemic police brutality.
Tributes to the confederacy aren’t just in the south
While here in Tennessee we are fighting the “it’s honoring our heritage” folks, what’s the reason throughout the rest of the country? Because these symbols and monuments to the confederacy aren’t just limited to the south.
One incredibly helpful resource is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Whose Heritage? project, launched in 2016. It includes an interactive map of public Confederate symbols (private property is not included) and an action guide that details how to work toward removing them.
The SPLC’s map of every public symbol of the Confederacy still standing across the US. It’s not just in Tennessee.
Of course, most of these are clustered throughout the South, but I think you might be fascinated to see some of the unexpected places you can find a Jefferson Davis memorial or a Robert E. Lee campground. That goes for you too, California, New York, and New England.
Note that just this week, the SPLC updated their map to acknowledge the 100+ public symbols commemorating the Confederacy that have been removed recently, but 1,747 still stand. And I have to believe the actual number is much higher than that, based on my own drive through my town today; this isn’t even identifying the vast number of streets and squares and schools.
So what can we do about it? Start with this list.
This is a great time to get involved, especially with support is swelling to remove Confederate symbols. Just a few days ago, Kentucky removed their Jefferson Davis monument from the Capitol. The momentum is here!
If you’re feeling overwhelmed about where to start or how you can make an impact toward removing these symbols, start by educating yourself with some of these tips. Spend 10 minutes — or maybe commit 10 minutes every day — to do something.
- Read the true history of the Confederate flag and learn to recognize all it has symbolized over time, in all its iterations.
- Learn about The Southern Strategy, and how deep-seeded racism and racial fears are used to divide Americans for political gain. Also, research “code words” and racist political “dog whistles” such as the term State Rights, which really isn’t about states rights at all. It helps you think more critically about the various arguments against removing monuments that you may hear.
- If you’re from a Southern town, especially one with a deep Civil War connection, learn your town’s accurate and true history. This letter to the editor in our Williamson County newspaper by history teacher Brad Perry is an excellent explanation of how and why Confederate symbols were brought into my city. It wasn’t an enduring symbol of “a way of life,” but an intentional effort brought back years after the Civil War to remind Black people of their place in Southern society. It’s a powerful effort at reconciliation and education that’s had significant impact here.
- Download the SPLC’s action guide, which will help you figure out how to move toward spotting and removing specific monuments.
- Call your representatives to support efforts to rename our military bases. It defies logic that so many are still named for traitors to our country who literally fought against their own countrymen with the aim of breaking apart our union to preserve the right to own other human beings.
- Support efforts like Declare Mississippi, which are trying to make the (woman-designed!) Stennis flag the official state flag to replace the existing one that incorporates the Confederate flag design. (Updated to add: More great news! On June 27, 2020, Mississippi lawmakers voted to remove the Confederate flag from their state flag.)
- Look at your city and county seals to see if there are Confederate symbols there. Call your representatives and ask for them to be removed. (Updated to add: Good news! In Tennessee, a task force has been formed to examine the need to alter the Williamson County seal, which was adopted in July 1968—1968!—and prominently features the Confederate Flag. Updated again: The task force unanimously voted to remove the Confederate flag from the Williamson County seal.)
- Also call your state’s DMV and demand that they discontinue any Confederate flag personalized plates. They’re currently in Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, and while Virgina’s doesn’t appear to have the flag it does state “Sons of Confederate Veterans” on it. In recent years, some states are seeing requests for these plates at an all time high. That’s horrific. Just, no.
- Tweet, Instagram, post, or otherwise publicly support organizations that are making inclusive decisions that may lose them some of their fans, like NASCAR (something I never thought I’d write). A few years ago, the Southern Baptist Church banned all use of Confederate flags. If these groups can do that, then more can too. And your public support makes it easier for them to do it. A lot easier.
- Take your actions to the micro-local level too. Ask your neighborhood HOA to consider a rebranding from something like (ahem) “Battlewood Estates,” where every street is named after a Confederate general, to something else. Anything else. It doesn’t have jump right to Civil Rights leaders, like Malcolm X Boulevard or W.E.B. Dubois Boulevard in New York City, though that would be a great change. Name the streets after flowers, birds, letters of the alphabet…literally anything at all. And hey, I get that it’s inconvenient to have to change your address on all of your bills and with family and friends, but y’all…if that’s what it takes to create just a little more healing and peace and equity for my Black friends and neighbors, then is it really so much to ask?
- Write to your school boards, both public and private, and ask what their policy is for displaying the Confederate flag on the property. Also, ask them to change Confederate-honoring mascots to something that doesn’t tell Black people that their family’s history of enslavement is something we’re proud of. (This goes for all racist team mascots, logos and slogans by the way, but start at the local level.) Just, switch it to something neutral and non-offensive. How about the lions? Lions are good. (Updated to add: speaking up works! The Franklin High School Rebels in my hometown just voted to change their mascot. And Jeannine Harvey shared on her Instagram this week that her hometown in Virginia changed Robert E. Lee High School to John Lewis High School! Keep speaking out!)
Know that some of these steps may cause some trouble with friends, your school, your neighbors, maybe even your own family members. It’s “good trouble,” as Rep John Lewis describes it. And Bayard Rustin said, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”
Black people, anti-racism advocates, and allies have been fighting for years to have these monuments removed. It’s beyond time for white people like me to listen. To do the work it takes to even notice these symbols, let alone to help remove them, and to build communities in which all our citizens can feel respected and valued.
Now clearly, removing Confederate monuments and renaming streets don’t even come close to solving the massive problems created by systematic racism in the US, but I think it does create the message that we’re working on moving away from it, and that we will no longer accept symbols that celebrate the worst of us.
As long as we allow those who stood for oppression to be honored, we can’t get there.
-More than 10,000 people have signed the petition to have “Chip” removed from downtown Franklin. Your voice can make a difference!
–The Fuller Story project has placed 5 markers in Franklin to recognize “the agony and advancements of African Americans in Franklin.” They are currently raising money to erect a monument to the United States Colored Troops in downtown Franklin.
– The Franklin High School Rebels in my hometown just voted to change their mascot.
-Jeannine Harvey shared on her Instagram this week that her hometown in Virginia changed Robert E. Lee High School to John Lewis High School! Keep speaking out!
–In Tennessee, a task force unanimously voted to remove the Confederate flag from the Williamson County seal.
–On June 27, 2020, Mississippi lawmakers voted to remove the Confederate flag from their state flag.
–Tennessee legislators agreed to move a bust of KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capitol building to the TN State Museum.