The Children Will Expect This of Us: A Response to the Rebel Ride

 

 

Image from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

Image from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

This short piece was submitted as a letter to the editor of the Courier newspaper  (hence the short length) on behalf of the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources

This coming Sunday there will be a Rebel Ride at Old Post Road Park in response to recent national calls to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings and the voluntary removal of flag merchandise from Wal-Mart shelves. Organizers say this ride is about heritage and to show that “they won’t take away our rights.”

Dylann Roof, the avowed white supremacist who killed 9 black people in a South Carolina church, flew the flag as a symbol of white supremacy. But many people who fly the flag say it represents southern heritage. For a variety of different and oftentimes conflicting reasons, lots of people just wish everyone would shut up about the flag.

Symbols have power and people tap into that power for all kinds of reasons. So let’s dig deep into the history and think critically about what southern pride can mean today. The design itself was originally the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, but overtime it’s come to represent all of the south. Though many flag supporters argue the Civil War was not about slavery, the states’ of articles of secession are straight forward. This comes from Arkansas:

“…it is the deliberate sense of this convention that African negroes and the descendants of the African race, denominated slaves by all the constitutions of the southern slaveholding states, is property, to all intents and purposes.”

The south is routinely shamed for racism. While it’s true that slavery—and Jim Crow, and now mass incarceration—were/are centered in the south, the north has always been equally complicit in this system, amassing huge amounts of wealth produced by people in chains. Racism is not now, nor ever has been, solely a southern problem. However, it’s imperative to note that the Confederate flag was revived by segregationists in the 1950s and began appearing in government buildings in response to the growing Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

It’s immensely important to love the place you call home and to express this outwardly, especially in the rural south where it’s all too common to be on the receiving end of national jokes. Such love can take on many forms, including choosing to learn more about our ancestors and look at their histories without fear, or guilt, or whitewashing.

Take for example the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union, an integrated organizing collective for poor people’s workers rights with black and white members and women leaders long before desegregation or the women’s movement. Spend some time on the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture and read up on the Knights of Labor or the Agricultural Wheel or the Council of Liberation for Blacks. The history of the south is filled with people fighting for justice, and it was the legacy of a national system of economic exploitation and dehumanization—leveled against both blacks and whites— they were fighting against.

Let’s be real and honest about how this symbol still speaks volumes to communities of color and hear what’s being said by Bree Newsome who scaled the flag pole in South Carolina to remove the flag (only to have it raised again a few hours later). Let’s move beyond south vs north and talk about mass incarceration or who’s burning black churches or the exploitation of poor people.

Let’s focus on history with eye to the future and think about what we want to build and focus our energies there. Not just for ourselves but for the kids who will be born long after we’re all gone and who will expect this of us.

~Written by Marie Williams and Meredith Martin-Moats on behalf of the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources. Historical research and fact checking provided by Guy Lancaster, editor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.