I remember my first awakening to what the Confederate battle flag meant to African Americans. It came remarkably late, but illustrates the endemic Southern culture and how we white folks can be so blind to "other people's histories," as the late Rev. Clementa Pinkney put it. I was a seminary student at Golden Gate Baptist Seminary in Mill Valley, California. The year would have been 1978, and I would have been 23 years old. My roommate in the men's dorm was from east Tennessee and I was from central Alabama. One day we were out somewhere in San Francisco and happened to see some small Confederate flags in a shop. We thought it would be a real hoot to show our Southern heritage back on campus at our dormitory, so we each bought one of the flags. They were small, only about 3 or 4 inches, attached to a stick that was 8 to 10 inches in length.
We mounted them on the door of our dorm room for all to see, crossing one over the other to make an "X" with the flags draping down. To us, we were affirming our regional heritage in a place that had students mostly from the western states, but there were some from all over the country and even other parts of the world. We were outsiders on the California West Coast, in a part of the country that was far from Southern in culture, and we were affirming our heritage.
A Quick History Lesson
Just down the hall from us was a fellow student a little older that we were (he was 29 or 30). Willie was from Mississippi and was African American. One afternoon when I came in from class, Willie called me aside and asked me to come to his room. He wanted to know why we had those flags on our door. I told him why, in similar terms as I have just related. He then told me about how the Confederate flag was viewed by the black community and what it elicited for him. I heard from him of the pain of racism and the fears of violence from white supremacists that he had grown up with.
His concern was that he wondered if people who waved the Confederate flag were in support of the white supremacists' legacy of subjugation of blacks. I told him that was not at all what we were thinking. I'm not sure he believed me at that moment, but I went immediately to my dorm room and removed the flags. When my roommate came in, I explained to him that we could not have those flags on the door. He was a little put out, but I told him about the conversation I had with Willie. My roommate was not immediately convinced. After all, the country had enacted civil rights, voting rights, and equal opportunity – we were not wanting to go back to the 19th century. We were just celebrating the place of our birth. Nevertheless, I told him, we cannot have these flags on our door. My own understanding at that point was only about 30 minutes ahead of my roommate's.
My roommate and I had lived our entire life in the South with very little knowledge of the different world that our African American neighbors lived in. It would be many years later before I would even begin to comprehend that while my childhood in the rural South was quite idyllic, my black neighbors just a few miles away lived in what would have to be termed a dystopian terrorist state – because of the Jim Crow laws that were in effect. We were all citizens of the same country, but our experiences were so very different.
In that moment back in 1978, it was more important for me to hear someone else’s story than to proudly proclaim my own story. Hearing about another person’s history began to open my eyes to my own actions. It was far more important for me to inflict no further harm and to eliminate any cause for ill will than it was to celebrate some half-remembered heritage. I remain a citizen of the South to this day, but my hope is for a South that can celebrate its present and future possibilities more than some idealized remembrance of the past.