THE BLOG

Heritage and Hate

06/30/2015 06:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016

After living in the Northeast my entire life, I moved to Charleston, South Carolina in 1976 to teach at the College of Charleston. I came with stereotypical ideas about the South, but was certainly open to changing my mind and hoped I would. Charleston is a lovely city, known for its gracious living. I'd never been known as a gracious liver.

My first week there, I saw a notice about a duplicate bridge game open to the public at the Christian Family Y and thought this would be an opportunity to meet people with common interests. Since I didn't have a partner, the organizer found a pleasant woman who agreed to be my partner.

When the game ended, I said to her, "I'm used to seeing the YMCA up North. Down here is it called it the 'Christian Family Y'?" She looked at me for a minute, and responded, "Oh, you must mean the black Y." I subsequently learned that the former YMCA where I was playing bridge had been kicked out of the national organization because it refused to integrate. The local group continued to meet in the same building and renamed it the "Christian Family Y." A smaller Y had opened for blacks, but without bridge games. That ended my duplicate bridge career in Charleston. (Ironically, the Christian Family Y was eventually torn down and replaced by condominiums, and I now live in one of them.)

A few weeks later, I was shocked to learn that the Confederate flag flew atop the State Capitol. That flag, to me, was a symbol of white supremacy, hatred, and slavery. It might rate space in a museum along with other artifacts of the Civil War (also referred to by some as "The War of Northern Aggression"), but deserves no greater respect.

When I questioned Southerners in my community about the flag, I often heard the H-word (Heritage). But some heritage is hateful or worse, including what the Confederate flag and swastika represent to most of the world. One of my math students belonged to a fraternity that flew the Confederate flag, and he said it meant "rebel" and defying conventional behavior.

A colleague who came to Charleston from New York in 1971 at the height of the Vietnam War told me he asked a woman at a party what she thought about the war. She said it was terrible what happened to her great granddaddy and other brave family members. Talk about living in the past! I've never understood such unconditional ancestor worship. I have no animosity toward descendants of slaveholders or Nazis, nor do I hold in any higher esteem descendants of heroes. We are responsible for our actions, not those of others.

Perhaps ancestor worship for some is biblically based. The Ten Commandments includes "For I the Lord am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of their parents to the third and fourth generation." Doesn't seem fair, but then neither does punishment for an alleged Original Sin of an alleged first couple.

At least part of the motivation for the Civil War came with the blessings of southern clergy and politicians who biblically justified slavery. Rev. Richard Furman, from my hometown of Charleston, was the first president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention and founder of the university that bears his name. Said Furman, "The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example." Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, added, "Slavery was established by the decree of Almighty God. It is sanctioned in the Bible, in both testaments, from Genesis to Revelation."

In 1962, at the height of the civil rights movement, the Confederate battle flag was placed on the South Carolina State Capitol dome by vote of an all-white legislature, purportedly to commemorate the Civil War centennial. And there it remained, despite many protests, long after the centennial commemoration.

Trivia question: Who was the first gubernatorial candidate to call for removal of the Confederate flag?

Answer: I was. When asked in a 1990 public television gubernatorial debate what my first act would be if elected governor, I said removing that flag. You can see it here at 21 minutes into the hour debate. (Democratic candidate Theo Mitchell, an African-American, said he personally opposed flying the Confederate flag but thought it should be left up to the people of South Carolina to decide.) I ran for governor to challenge the provision in the state constitution that denies atheists the right to hold public office. I eventually won a South Carolina Supreme Court victory in 1997, thus nullifying the unconstitutional provision. I wrote about this in my book Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.

The Confederate battle flag was moved in 2000 from the dome to the front of the Statehouse. As part of this legislative "compromise," the flag can only be removed with approval of the state legislature. After the recent murders of nine blacks in a Charleston church by a white racist, most white politicians have changed their minds, and I expect the Confederate flag will finally be removed from state grounds.

The most reluctant college president in South Carolina to back removal of the Confederate flag was College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell. A long time defender of the Confederacy, McConnell fought to keep the Confederate flag atop the Capitol dome. When he was a state senator, his Confederate memorabilia store sold items that included Maurice Bessinger's barbeque sauce, which lots of shoppers and stores were boycotting because of Bessinger's biblically justified pro-slavery tracts, and toilet paper with the image of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.

McConnell released a statement supporting Gov. Nikki Haley's call to remove the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds. But he also called for the historic monuments, streets, and building names (many after racists) to be preserved and protected at a time when others are calling for name changes. Ironically, one of the most moving moments in Charleston occurred on June 21 when an estimated 20,000 people marched on the Arthur Ravenel Bridge in a show of solidarity with those affected by the church murders. Blacks and whites clasped hands and hugged.

Who is Arthur Ravenel? When the NAACP called for a tourism boycott of South Carolina until the flag was removed from Capitol grounds, state Senator Ravenel, a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans, called the NAACP the "National Association for Retarded People." He later apologized--to the mentally handicapped for comparing them to the NAACP. Ravenel thinks Gov. Haley should not have called for the flag removal, while I think the Ravenel Bridge should be renamed.

I would like to end on a happy note. Despite and because of recent tragedies in Charleston, I've never been prouder of my city. In a city where blacks were once expected to get off the sidewalk to let a white person pass, I now see blacks and whites smiling at one another and carrying on conversations. We know that this is a historic moment for all of us in Charleston, and I can only hope that out of tragedy will come lasting good.

In a recent piece, I mentioned how moved I was at a church service when blacks and whites held hands and sang "We Shall Overcome." I believe we have already overcome in some ways, and I look forward to further overcoming.