Confederate Memorial Day

Instead, we should commit ourselves to justice. That would feel a lot better than having an embarrassing holiday.
04/24/2017 09:22 am ET Updated Apr 24, 2017
My grandfather holding me during my first birthday party.
My grandfather holding me during my first birthday party.

Two states, Mississippi and my home state of Alabama, are doing Confederate Memorial Day today. I have some thoughts about that.

This embarrassment invites many levels of analysis, but any reasonable conversation must begin with a single, simple fact: Confederate Memorial Day is an assertion of white supremacy, a direct insult (intended as humiliation) to non-whites in the South, and a middle finger pointed straight at the rest of the country.

Way too many people will deny that reality. But they know the truth, and they are responsible for knowing the truth. How can we be so sure? Why not ask a Confederate Memorial Day advocate to walk up to a black person they regard as a friend and wish that person a Happy Confederate Memorial Day. They know better. It’s as clear as it can possibly be.

Confederate Memorial Day is an assertion of white supremacy, a direct insult (intended as humiliation) to non-whites in the South, and a middle finger pointed straight at the rest of the country.

Yes, there are other factors. Southerners still feel grief and shame over the Confederate defeat. A long history of poverty and anti-Southern animus affects how almost all white Southerners see the world. They affect me too.

My Lancaster Seminary colleague Frank Stalfa taught me about complicated grief. We all would like to honor our ancestors. In the case of white Southerners, there’s a deep desire to find honor in our past. To celebrate whatever courage, dignity, and creativity was present in those ancestors. That’s a basic human desire. With respect to the Confederacy, the ability to celebrate our families’ heritage is complicated by defeat.

But celebrating that heritage is also denied by morality. For almost every Southerner who supported the Confederacy, the most significant thing about their lives is this: they either enslaved other people, or they went to war to defend the enslavement of other people. One could be a devoted parent, a great philanthropist or politician, a business genius. But from a moral point of view, the most important thing about that person is their relationship to slavery. Slavery is the bottom line.

Almost every Southerner who supported the Confederacy either enslaved other people, or they went to war to defend the enslavement of other people

With respect to our ancestors, that’s hard to accept. Apart from the Civil War, one might argue that other things are more important about Washington, Jefferson, and the others. From a moral point of view, I’m not sure. They enslaved other people.

What do you do when your parent is a Mafia boss or a tenement owner? How do you acknowledge that reality in your own story?

Today there is no excuse for Alabama and Mississippi. There’s no excuse for Confederate flags, t-shirts, or “days.” But there is a need for white Southerners to deal with their truth in constructive ways.

I have an idea. Maybe we could commit ourselves to justice. Maybe we could go about the process of acknowledging the truth and making things right. Maybe we could begin the process of reparations. That would feel a lot better than having an embarrassing holiday.

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