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Flags, Holidays and Heroes

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I live in a small southern American community in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley that, in recent years, has struggled with how to simultaneously commemorate the Civil War and civil rights.

The valley is beautiful. The Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains provide miles of picture-postcard scenery that run parallel to the western border of Virginia. My hometown is known for its scenic beauty, its educational institutions and for monuments dedicated to famous generals. A museum holding the papers of George C. Marshall is a prominent attraction, as are the graves of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson--the team of Confederate generals whose bold maneuvers and hard marches won a string of victories early in the war.

I live in one of the places where people go to remember the conflict that took more lives than any other in the history of the United States. It was the war that ended the era of slavery--the era that scars the soul of the American nation.

By coincidence, Lee-Jackson Day, the holiday set aside by the state of Virginia to honor the memories of Lee and Jackson, falls on or near the day chosen by the nation to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. This coincidence prompted debates in my community about whether it was appropriate to fly Confederate flags on city lampposts at a time when the nation is remembering its most important civil rights leader. To some, it was wrong for a government to officially display such flags at any time of the year. In the end, and after considerable controversy, the city decided to fly no flags on holidays other than the official ones representing the nation and the state.

Of course, such a decision does not prevent private citizens from displaying whatever flags they may wish; and the city ordinance effectively prohibiting official Confederate displays had the effect of encouraging individuals to make them. Lee-Jackson Day became a holiday that fills our streets with Confederate paraphernalia of many shapes and sizes. On this day each year, my hometown is a popular destination for the descendants of confederate veterans, the hobbyists who reenact Civil War events, political attention-seekers of many stripes and journalists who love a good uproar.

The juxtaposition of Confederate flags and banners celebrating Martin Luther King can produce a disconcerting scene, but one that might not surprise people in Ireland. While visiting Dublin this year, I read stories about parades and flags in the north and about the hollowed out families living with the memories of loved ones lost during decades of violence. Because I have seen something similar at home, I have some sympathy for how hard the issues of regulating symbolic displays can be and for the challenging diplomatic task taken on by Richard Haass.

But the coincidence of holidays in Virginia has at least one positive feature. It invites people to consider what Martin Luther King, Jr. might have said or done in response to the displays of Confederate memorabilia near the day that commemorates his accomplishments.

First and foremost, I think King would defend the right of every individual to exercise the liberties of assembly and speech guaranteed by the Constitution. Throughout his life, he praised American constitutional rights and protested unjust laws that denied those rights to African-Americans.

But rights and liberties, once granted, are not without costs. Some assemblies, some speeches, some flags offend some who witness them. If King spoke out about Lee-Jackson Day events, he would use the language he developed throughout his career, a language that combined dignity and indignation in a way that spoke to hardened hearts on both sides of deep racial divides. As he defended the rights of Confederate flag fliers, he might also chide them for flaunting symbols of a flawed glory in a world still struggling with the legacies of long practiced injustices.

It is, of course, presumptuous to pronounce with any certainty what King might say about contemporary situations. During his life, his words were often hard to predict. But one thing is nearly certain. He would, from time to time, ask us to dream of days in the future when the wounds of history would be less open and when new generations would be freer to live lives no longer dominated by those wounds.

Dreams do not come true by themselves. They can, however, instruct and inspire. In Ireland and America we can honor King by crafting our own dreams of better communities and then committing ourselves to the sacrifice, the tolerance and the hard work it will take to move closer to those dreams.

A slightly longer version of this essay was published in The Belfast Telegraph on January 17, 2014 and is reprinted here with permission.