Atlanta, Ga.

Look Away, Dixie Land

By Errin Whack

Maybe it’s because I don’t have a traceable accent (or so some people say; my mother would argue differently) that I feel compelled to let people know, to remove any doubt, that I am, in fact, a Southerner. And not just a Southerner — a proud Southerner.

This means many things, among them: Coke, never Pepsi, is practically a commandment. No, I would not like unsweetened tea, ever. Always real bacon. Always. Sometimes boiled peanuts.

Oh, and do not plan anything on the last Saturday in October if you expect me to attend.

I grew up eating muscadines. I believe wraparound porches are God’s living room. My play clothes all had red-clay stains on the knees. I ate watermelon — with my white playmates, in our front yard.

There are different ways to be Southern. Clinging to the rebel flag and the ugly past it represents should not be one of them.

This is not ‘pe-KAHN’ versus ‘PEE-can.’ When I see that flag – on bumper stickers on the backs of pickup trucks, on t-shirts, or on the statehouse grounds in South Carolina – the message it sends from those who display it is clear: These Southerners are not like me.

This is about heritage, but that is a fact to be neither celebrated nor encouraged. That heritage honors a society built on the backs of millions of black men, women and children, that was passed down through generations in this country like a birthright.

The rebel flag – or more specifically, the Confederate battle flag – was raised repeatedly during the Civil War, as a banner of resistance by a band of states bent on maintaining chattel slavery, inarguably the worst institution in our nation’s history.

This is uncomfortable, but not unclear. The battle flag was designed by a South Carolinian and was based on the South Carolina secession convention flag flown in 1860 in Charleston.

A century later, the flag was raised again by the descendants of these Southern troops in their spirit and memory. Like their forefathers, these men were also resisting the march toward racial equality in America, determined to uphold legalized segregation.

Slavery and life under Jim Crow were also once inheritances, and the rebel flag is meant to invoke these eras. Strangely, some Southerners are far less enthusiastic about commemorating this form of Southern heritage, instead preferring to ignore it as simply “the past.”

But in the words of that most famous Southerner, Mississippian William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”

Over generations, the rebel flag has become synonymous with the oppression of black Americans, and we should take no pride in a symbol that still carries such a dastardly meaning. These Southern roots were choked off long ago, and now it is time to bury their rotten remains.

We can do better, y’all. We are better. It is a realization some are coming to – slowly or suddenly, depending on your perspective — in the wake of last week’s racially motivated shootings in Charleston, done under the coat of arms of hate in America.

More than 150 years ago, a parade of Southern states lined up to leave our country to preserve slavery. This week, they are lining up to in unity to repudiate that racist past. It is a step toward our more perfect union.

The governors of Virginia and Georgia signaled they could soon remove the confederate flag from state license plates. By Wednesday morning, the flag was already gone from the Alabama statehouse grounds, by order of the state’s governor.

Wal-Mart, Amazon and eBay are now refusing to sell the racist banner, and major flag makers will no longer sew it.

But sales of the flag skyrocketed as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday called for the flag’s removal at the Capitol – proving that there are still those ready to resist bending the arc of the universe toward justice.

Addressing the graduating class of Oberlin College in June 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right to do right.” The time of reckoning in this country is upon us.

There are other ways to show pride in being from the Palmetto State, not least of which is the highly recognizable actual state flag. As a Georgian whose own state finally rid itself of the Southern Cross as our state symbol in my lifetime, I can tell our neighbors that after they dispense with that flag, they will still be South Carolinians – and perhaps even prouder.

Already, there are thousands of schools, streets and statues across the South bearing the names of Confederate heroes. They cannot all be as easily be relegated to museums, as President Barack Obama and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley have suggested, but they should all be scrubbed from the public square nonetheless. I can think of no better catalyst than starting with that flag.

There is much to preserve about our unique region that we all of the South’s sons and daughters can embrace, not least of all the South Carolina state’s motto: “Dum Spiro Spero,” Latin for, “While I breathe, I hope.”


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