I am a Southerner from a line of Southerners going back centuries. The characters making up my heritage include an entrepreneur who helped his community get through the Great Depression (and kept them supplied with quality moonshine, utilizing the backroads of Habersham County on which NASCAR has its roots), a preacher who performed the first wedding in the Marietta Square gazebo (a shotgun wedding with construction worker witnesses), and a pig farmer whose land is now a four-lane highway taking you straight to SunTrust stadium. My heritage is a mixed bag, with samplings of pride, shame, triumph, failure, and not infrequently blurred lines between history and hearsay.
There are aspects of my heritage I would love made into a major motion picture and others I would love redacted permanently. As such, it gives me pause when I see a bumper sticker with a Confederate flag alongside the very catchy phrase, “heritage, not hate.”
The word heritage is a sibling of the word inheritance and has a similar meaning, though often with a less tangible intent; our heritage is that which we inherit — whether it be land, culture, or the ability to wiggle our ears. Our heritage isn’t chosen by us; it is inherited by us. Our choice lies only in which aspects of our heritage we celebrate and those we allow to languish in the shadows, to be trotted out only as cautionary tales.
The Confederate flag is indeed a part of my heritage. It is a symbol of a time during which my forefathers fought for the right to perpetually subjugate a race of people — 4 million strong in the US by the onset of the Civil War — for their economic benefit. This flag flew as the banner under which this cause was fought for just two years, from 1863 to 1865. It flew in two forms, neither of which exactly match that flown today. While in official use, it served one purpose and signified one idea. It was the battle flag of the Confederate States of America, and signified the idea that slavery was an inherent right of the white man — one worth fighting and dying for.
This idea of white supremacy embodied by the Confederate flag (history is not ambiguous regarding the cause for which the Civil War was fought) has cultivated both benefactors and victims in my own family tree. I currently live on a family farm where a sharecropper’s house lies moldering, a relic of the “fortunate” descendants of less fortunate slaves who once worked this land. My grandfather, a Southern Baptist preacher, was voted out of his church in the 1980s for the transgression of bussing in African-American children for Vacation Bible School. He never pastored again. As a white American, the benefits have vastly outstripped the costs.
At the risk of drawing criticism for trotting out an oft-overused comparison, I think it would be wise to compare the treatment of this piece of Southern heritage to another flag whose image elicits similarly strong emotions. From 1935-1945, the Nazi flag flew as the official flag of Germany – a period of time eclipsing that of the Confederate flag by eight years.
It could easily be argued that this 10-year period marked the height of German pride, German dominance, and German nationalism; greater fervor was unlikely enjoyed by German citizens before and certainly hasn’t since. By any definition, the Nazi flag is an important element of Germany’s heritage. Despite this, it is against German law to import or display the Nazi flag and has been since the 1950s. This aspect of Germany’s heritage has been relegated to museums and history books, despite its significance. Why?
The German people recognize that the Nazi flag’s connection to Germany’s heritage of pride and nationalism pales in comparison to its connection to an attempt to obliterate an entire race, with 6 million Jews dead by the conclusion of the war. While Germany is committed to never forgetting what happened, they display a consistent commitment to avoid even the appearance of celebrating any aspect of that heritage of hate.
In my own community, a cultural war is being waged over what place the Confederate flag deserves. For myself, I deeply desire this symbol to never be forgotten. I want my children and their grandchildren to know their ancestors believed some human beings were inherently inferior and existed solely for the use, misuse, exploitation, and abuse at the hand of superior beings. I want this not so they would carry a perpetual shame, but that they would be resolute in preventing a resurrection of past sins.
For others, there is a deep desire for this symbol to be not just remembered, but perpetually celebrated. I do not ask them to give up their cause. I ask only that they honestly acknowledge the full weight of the heritage for which they fight — that their bumper stickers and yard flags and graveyard flags and throw blankets are indeed a celebration of an enthusiastically received and systematically perpetuated heritage; a heritage of hate.