I want to make a public confession. A little over two years ago, I was in a conversation with a close friend in which I defended the “Heritage Not Hate” symbol of the Confederate flag. I was still living in the Pacific Northwest at the time, and I described my feelings of pride and identity with the South which I had always felt when growing up in Kentucky. I grew up along the Ohio River (literally on the border of what separates “North” from “South”), and I was always proud about which side of that line I lived on. This whole region-at-large is thick with “Urban Appalachia,” and Cincinnati is rife with rhetoric about “leaving your shoes at the state line when crossing the bridge into Kentucky.”
I frequently visited my grandparents in the foothills of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains as a child, and I always romanticized an Appalachian/Southern identity for myself. In that area, a little more often than in Northern Kentucky where I lived, I frequently saw the Confederate flag held high. And through my young eyes, I saw it as a symbol of beans-n-cornbread and biscuits-n-gravy; of bluegrass music and earthy self-reliance; of visceral, mystical practices of faith and belting out “Rocky Top” as loud as I could sing it with my grandpa at Tennessee college football games. I was proud of these parts of my heritage, and so I was sympathetic to a symbol that I associated with them.
Only a few days after the conversation where I defended the selective use of that Confederate symbol, on June 17, 2015, a young white man named Dylan Roof murdered 9 black people during a prayer service at their African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Among the regional and national effects of that disgusting act was a renewed firestorm about whether to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings and monuments across the South where it still flew. And in the midst of that firestorm, my same friend called to ask me, “Have your feelings changed at all about the Confederate flag since our last conversation about it?” Yes, they had.
Let’s be clear: I was wrong. Not at all about there being positive traits to celebrate about Southeastern culture, geography, food, or faith; I was wrong about the possibility that the Confederate flag can ever be effectively championed as a symbol of pride in those things.
On July 2, 2015, less than a month after Roof’s abhorrent acts, CNN published an article entitled, Poll: Majority sees Confederate flag as Southern pride symbol, not racist. However, after leading with a title like that, the article included this piece of data:
While 75% of Southern whites describe the flag as a symbol of pride and 18% call it a symbol of racism, those figures are almost exactly reversed among Southern African-Americans, with just 11% seeing it as a sign of pride and 75% viewing it as a symbol of racism.
Tell me, please: Can we honestly call the dissonance between the title of CNN’s article and this quote from it anything less than clear, contemporary institutional racism? Is it even possible that this is other than a selective misrepresentation of statistics to maintain the status quo when the people who are most vulnerable to this symbol overwhelmingly witness it as a symbol of hatred and exclusion? For that matter, what’s the journalistic story here – that the overall majority of Americans see the flag as predominantly representing Southern pride, or that such an overwhelming majority of African Americans don’t? If you’re like me and white, can you even imagine what it would be like to be a person of color who read that headline – would you believe it to be true – and would you ever fully trust that news outlet again?
Fast forward to today and the symbols I keep encountering in social media since the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend (8/11-12/2017). I’m utterly ill when I watch Vice News Tonight’s video of those protests, Charlottesville: Race and Terror – the venom spewed from the mouths of white supremacists and the footage of the car driving over counter-protestors in the street [please watch that video]. AND. I also feel ill when I see the symbols championed by many progressives and activists in response on social media, even from some of my fellow chaplains and ministers: Captain America and Indiana Jones punching out Nazis; glorified WWII invasion photos with captions like, “We literally had a war about this.”
To those progressives and activists, I implore you, sisters and brothers: PLEASE STOP. Look. Listen. Those are the drums of war you are beating, and you’re taking the bait dangled in front of you by the very forces you claim to diametrically oppose. Those neo-Nazis didn’t rise out of the mud like Orcs from a Tolkien story. They were molded, radicalized, emboldened. What’s more, they are the face of forces that have always been a part of the American story. The difference is that today they feel like they can take their masks off and stand up tall. They are the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny. They’re the literally hundreds of broken treaties with Native American tribes – and their wanton genocides. They’re both the centuries of African slaves and the ensuing decades of Jim Crow in which countless black women, children, and men were brutally murdered in our country without a shadow of justice. They’re the fact that we Americans have the highest incarceration rate in the world today – and they’re the grossly disproportionate number of African American men among those incarcerated, too.
We’ve literally had lots of wars about this – and we need to carefully examine what our country was fighting for in all of them.
In that same video I referenced above [seriously, please watch that video], a local Charlottesville activist named Tanesha Hudson told her own story in her own words:
Not many of us have come out until it’s too late… This is the face of supremacy. This is what we deal with every day being African American. And this has always been the reality of Charlottesville. You can’t stand in one corner in this city and not look at the master sitting on top of Monticello. He looks down on us. He’s been looking down on this city for God knows how long. This is Charlottesville.
Please, friends, look and listen: symbols matter.
Now is not the time to clench our fists as we close our eyes and ears, to glorify violence because we think the enemy is finally bad enough to justify the gratuitous release of our pent-up anxiety, anger, and frustration. Nor am I suggesting that violent would-be ethnic-cleansers deserve to be heard out. Our first amendment rights don’t enable us to run into a crowded theater and shout, “Fire! Fire!” And that’s exactly how heavily armed people who show up in the streets demanding genocide ought to be treated, too.
But is a masked white man who’s thirsty for combat and wrapped in the American flag the hero any of us need right now, whoever the foe? I had a different idea while writing this piece: if I had the artistic skill, I’d draw a picture of Captain America sitting down in front of a mirror, mask in his hand, and the exposed face looking back at him would be… Hitler? Trump? I’m not sure yet, but I hope the point is there – Captain America needs to take a long look at himself and how he has emboldened or radicalized those same Nazis he wants to punch in the face. How have symbols like Captain America molded them throughout our country’s entire history?
By contrast, over the last few days, I’ve been reading Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and I’ve found it to be remarkably appropriate to what we’re facing again today. There’s one line that particularly stood out which reads, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.”
I’m especially concerned with that third step right now, self-purification, and how it might fit with what I’m addressing here. The King Encyclopedia at Stanford’s website had this to say about it:
Self-purification is the cleansing of anger, selfishness and violent attitudes from the heart and soul in preparation for a nonviolent struggle. This is a fundamental aspect of Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of active resistance/civil disobedience. The practice is deeply spiritual and philosophical and it is not simply ideological. This is an important distinction as it differentiates this type of action from other forms of ideological or revolutionary behavior.
If you’re among those today who discovers that you’re grasping at models of foreign saviors in WWII imagery or iconic nationalistic heroes, may I please encourage you to reread that quote – maybe a few times. Digest it. Look inside yourself and see what you find. And then do it again – because it’s an ongoing process, a practice.
I believe that we can (and must!) smash white supremacy without literally punching Nazis. And that to do otherwise would be to lose ourselves in the fight. We must differentiate nonviolent struggle from other forms of ideological or revolutionary behavior. And then we must move on to Dr. King’s fourth step: direct action.
Please get started if you haven’t already. This struggle is well underway. And your purified heart and soul are both needed here.