Over the years I’ve heard a lot of my Yankee friends say, “You people down South seem to be still fighting the Civil War.”
By that they mean that it seems to be an obsession of many Southerners to point out where this battle was fought and how that battle was won and how the South was outnumbered but never outfought, and how it was really about states’ rights and how Robert E. Lee was the finest American who ever lived. Yankees find this sort of thing quaint and amusing, since they are usually at a loss to even know what Phil Sheridan did to the Shenandoah Valley or what John Sedgwick’s last words were.*
Since the North won, the conventional wisdom there is usually simple: The North fought the Civil War to “free the slaves” and to save the Union from the secessionist traitors of the South. The South was bad; the North was good. Abe Lincoln was the finest American who ever lived. This is the myth of the victors, who get to write the history books.
The South was not only defeated, but devastated, and there was no Marshall Plan to rebuild Dixie. The punitive “Reconstruction” period, cynically abandoned after the brokered election of Rutherford B. Hayes, embittered the tattered remnants of the Confederacy, and gave rise to the reestablishment of white supremacy and Jim Crow.
That bitterness was passed down from generation to generation, inherited like old tattered butternut uniforms and faded flags. Black folks were no longer in slavery, but instead seemed condemned to a hard life of poverty and third-class citizenship.
The Civil Rights Movement changed that. The South was suddenly unshackled economically, and in the competition between the Sun Belt and the Rust Belt, the South has become the fastest turning economic engine in the nation. With Atlanta as its capital, the “New South” has risen from its ashes like the mythical phoenix.
But these days the South is once again being treated like America’s red-headed stepchild. The national press recently had great sport destroying the career of Paula Deen, mocking her Southern accent and her candor about race and the progress of race relations in the South. And those of us who honor our Confederate ancestry have become special targets of this prejudice. Suddenly, any connection with our very real Southern heritage opens us to ridicule and the taint of racism.
As Mr. Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Last month I was planning to play with our band at a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., for Ed Markey, who was running for John Kerry’s Senate seat in Massachusetts. An old and dear friend of ours had asked us to bring “Cooter’s Garage Band” for the occasion, and even though I was dead tired from the road and everybody had to rearrange their work schedules to make it happen, we were heading into the city to have some fun and entertain those folks.
But just as I was heading out of the hollow I got a call from a guy in Markey’s campaign informing me that I was being “disinvited” from the fundraiser because I was a “defender of the Confederate flag.” (I have always defended that flag against Klan bigots and those who are dipped in “political correctness.”)
I’m not making this up. This was already a story in Boston where Markey’s spokesman told the Boston Globe, “Ed believes such Confederate relics are highly offensive, and should not be displayed in public settings, period.”
In my usual tactful way, I told this guy that he and Markey could “fold it four ways, tie a ribbon around it and put it where the moon don’t shine.” I guess I became a “highly offensive Confederate relic” myself.
Markey won the race, of course. It would have been almost impossible for a Democrat to lose that seat in Massachusetts, but he tried. He has never called me personally to explain himself, so I have to assume that he is simply spineless. That should serve him well in the Senate.
While countless American kids play with their General Lee model cars, and many thousands solemnly honor the fallen of the Union and the Confederacy at Gettysburg, there are those like Markey who insist that the Confederate Battle Flag stands for only the worst in our national experience and that anyone who thinks otherwise is surely a racist. Well, I’m not going to allow my decisions about my culture and my region to be determined by the sideshow conflict between sanctimonious media liberals and wingnut hate groups.
My Confederate flag stands for a lot of things, all of them good.