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A lesson on 'southern heritage' and the profound power of symbols

The debate swirling around the Confederate battle flag takes me back to a time early in my career when that symbol nearly cost me a job. It was when I first came to realize that for a lot of people, the Civil War was still alive and kicking, more than 125 years after Appomattox.

Growing up in New York City in the 1970s, I thought that everyone was liberal, and that almost everyone was Jewish. Then, in the early 1990s, I found myself in the ultraconservative small town of Bastrop in northeast Louisiana, where, at 25, I became editor of its tiny daily newspaper.

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I quickly noticed how fond many white people there were of the Confederate flag, and how often they spoke of pride in their "Southern heritage." After listening to this for a few months, I couldn't help putting in my two cents. My title at the Bastrop Daily Enterprise was news editor, but given that I had a newsroom staff of four I wore many hats, including reporter, photographer, page designer and opinion writer. Putting on my opinion hat, I fired off a column titled "Whose Heritage Is It, Anyway?" in which I made what I thought was a rather obvious point: that African-Americans were Southerners too, and that the Confederate battle flag in no way represented them and their heritage.

I should have known better. A few weeks earlier, my staff reporter had penned an article explaining that Martin Luther King Jr. Day was for everyone and should be celebrated by all, leading the features editor to demand an "equal time" column calling for a holiday honoring Robert E. Lee.

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This was before the Internet, so it took a day or two after my flag column appeared for the hate mail to begin to pour in. And pour in it did. I received dozens of letters informing me — some politely, others less so — what a sorry, misinformed S.O.B. I was, not to mention a carpetbagging liberal Northerner. Most of the writers cited an affiliation with Sons of Confederate Veterans, including one whose letter bore a Northern California return address. The most powerful local politician at the time called me up to ask me why I was "always siding with the blacks," although "blacks" was not the word he used.

Looking back on it, I'm a little surprised that things didn't go worse. People chided me when they met me in line at the grocery store, but I was not hounded out of town. My boss, the publisher, was away when the piece came out, otherwise it might not have seen the light of day. He didn't disagree with my point, but having grown up in Conway, Ark., he could have easily predicted what happened. Although he gave me a stern lecture about my lack of discretion on such a sensitive topic, I think he was secretly proud of me.

My wife and I lasted another year in that town. Living there was difficult for us, but also educational in ways that have lasted a lifetime. I came face to face with ugly, unapologetic racism for the first time, but I was also forced to confront the fact that these small-town bigots were real human beings — sometimes remarkably complex ones. For example, the same editor who wrote the pro-Robert E. Lee opinion piece and proudly voted for David Duke showed great kindness to me and my wife when our daughter was born, presenting us with a lovely baby blanket that she spent hours quilting by hand. (Yes, this was after I had written the piece criticizing her precious flag.) Moreover, she had a dark-skinned daughter-in-law whom her soldier son had met while stationed in Panama, and was head-over-heels in love with her dark-skinned granddaughter. People are complicated.

It is good to see the Confederate battle flag taken down from the statehouse grounds in South Carolina — an important step in its eventual, inevitable demise from our public life. But in many ways, the flag issue is a generational one. For people like my former colleague, the flag did not represent hatred of blacks as much as it stood for an earlier time that she remembered fondly, in no small part because white supremacy made her life easier.

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My own little scrape with the flag was an object lesson about the profound power of symbols. It taught me, too, that when you get to know someone personally, it's hard to hate them, however strange or distasteful their beliefs. And in the end, it may be the only way to have any hope of changing those beliefs.

Michael Cross-Barnet, a former Sun op-ed page editor, is a writer living in Baltimore. His email is charmcityrising@gmail.com.

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