THE BLOG

Pride in Southern Heritage Does Not Require the Confederate Flag -- In Fact, It's Now an Obstacle

06/21/2015 08:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2016
MLADEN ANTONOV via Getty Images

When South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham was asked about the Confederate Stars and Bars continuing to wave on State House grounds, he explained, "It works here," and then added, its presence is "part of who we are."

History is certainly part of who we are. But it is long past time to stop romanticizing the past represented by the Confederate flag.

My family's heritage is as Southern as it can possibly get. My father's lineage is from Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee. On my mother's side, our roots in Southwestern Virginia continue into the present. My grandfather's grandfather fought for the Confederacy and almost died at age 16 when he was shot in battle near where the Richmond airport stands today. I spent my childhood summers in Salem, outside of Roanoke, Virginia, where I learned there is nowhere on earth more beautiful than the Blue Ridge Mountains.

A friend of mine is from a little further down that mountain range, into North Carolina, a place he champions as proudly as anyone who has ever loved his heritage. Our geographic backgrounds are similar, but across a historic racial divide. Yesterday, he told me that being reminded the Confederate flag is still flying on South Carolina State House grounds made him so mad he found he could not even fall sleep. He took himself to a dark room in his house and sat in despair, his head in his hands.

My heritage requires this? Surely not.

We ought to celebrate family members we love, the kindness of people in South, the land, the culture, the food, the music born there that has changed the world -- and a Civil Rights struggle that did, too. There are so many things to be proud of that it strains credibility to believe we need a flag -- one which hurts and offends others -- in order to appreciate our heritage.

Like Dylann Roof, the founders of the Confederacy told us exactly why they were doing what they did. Yet in both cases, some ignore those clearly stated motivations. This is because, in both instances, it was racism, the subjugation of fellow human beings, that lay at the heart of their efforts. The Confederacy was an attempt to create a slave-holding empire throughout the Western hemisphere. The human cost of such an outcome is incalculable and our country fracturing would have destroyed the world's hope that democratic government could endure conflict. South Carolina did not fly the flag of this failed rebellion outside their State House until 1961, when its revival was less about regional patriotism than resistance to the Federal Government's advancement of civil rights.

We are asking Black Americans to bear so much right now. Asking them to walk past that flag is far too much.

But there is something else to consider: To take the flag down is not only good for them; it is good for those of white southern heritage. It tangibly signals an engagement with making our country more just.

Perhaps removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina's public life is not the most urgently needed action post-Charleston. There is so much more we must to do to take on the racial resentments and fears still embedded in our institutions and ourselves, as well as the inequalities that remain in our society. Yet flags are powerfully symbolic objects -- that is why we hoist them to our higher view. Only, the Confederate flag represents ugly parts of our history and should no longer be used. These symbols matter. Just ask Dylann Roof why he wore a flag of apartheid South Africa.

The Rhodesian flag is long gone now in South Africa, but friends I have from that country love their home none the less. The part of ourselves we celebrate today should be what embodies the better angels of our nature. South Carolina, and, as well, the nine states that allow Confederate license plates (and Mississippi, whose state flag itself includes the Stars and Bars), must, at last, consign these symbols to museums, where they belong as objects of history, not as living symbols.

To the extent a flag can capture all that we love about the South, there is only one flag that can do it: our American flag.