The Civil War wasn't about slavery. That's what I was told by teachers, family, friends, churchgoers and casual motorists at gas stations throughout my childhood in rural Alabama. Black and white had nothing to do with it, they said. States' rights, they would all echo. States' rights, yes, now that was the real reason--usually punctuating that last bit by spitting out a wad of chewing tobacco.
When you are white in the South, what you learn about the Confederate flag--which gets slapped on everything from pickup trucks to cakes to state houses--is that it is a flag of honorable defense against a tyrannical invader. It is meant to invoke a feeling of legacy for our ancestors who died in some great struggle for their definition of liberty.
What I learned, what we all remembered when a young white man opened fire in a Charleston church this month, is that story is a lie. It is a symbol of hatred and fear that has been the banner of terror for so many people throughout America's history. Dylann Roof was a product of that lie and clothed himself in its colors--the weary hues that still fly at the South Carolina Statehouse today.
Educated people may satirize the South's language about the "war of northern aggression," but until I enrolled at the University of South Carolina, that was the only story I had ever heard. When you walk the few short blocks from Main Street down to the grounds, you see a ragged, faded flag that barely seems to be hanging on--nothing like the large flag flying over Alabama's interstate or the Confederate sigils still officially part of the Mississippi state flag. To think that so many deaths in a place of sanctuary were finally required to mobilize the nation around retiring this tattered Dixie battle standard is the height of absurdity.
Still, that absurdity pales in comparison to the survival of states' rights rhetoric in today's contemporary political landscape. During the oral arguments of Obergefell v. Hodges, both the counsellors and justices seemed as easily distracted as mayflies--hopping from one sour line of questioning to the next. However, one telling quote did stand out, from U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.
"You may have many states, perhaps most states, in which gay couples can live with equal dignity and status," he said, "but you will have a minority of states in which gay couples will be relegated to demeaning, second-class status, and I don't know why we would want to repeat that history."
I interpret "that history" as the loss of equality, of dignity and of safety that has plagued the black community since 1865--through Plessy, through Brown, through Bloody Sunday and now through the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church. Those states that believe in enforcing marriage as a procreation-centered union and that assert their right to deny recognition to those who marry outside their lines are ever so slightly retracing the same lines that divided this country between free and slave states more than a hundred years ago--which took the country's deadliest war in its history to erase.
White LGBTs can never fully know the painful past the Confederate flag holds for our brothers and sisters of color. However, we do know how the rhetoric it represents threatens our future. We are one country, with one flag, and we live by one promise: liberty and justice for all. The call to take down the flag is our call, too. Not just as supporters of the black community, but as members of our own community. A handful of states say they have the right to dictate our lives, our families and our happiness because they still believe in the awful patchwork of states' rights arguments that nearly brought our nation to the brink. Taking down that tattered flag is a symbol that LGBTs stand with the black community, and as importantly, stand for themselves as citizens of this Union.