Growing Up in the South with Flags and Racism

Blog by Sr. Judy Morris, OP
Blog by Sr. Judy Morris, OP

When I reflect on growing up in the south one incident comes to mind immediately. A young associate pastor issued a challenge to members of Young Christian Students attending the public high school in Danville, KY, a segregated town in a segregated state. He challenged students to approach the managers of local restaurants and ask why they did not serve African-Americans. Needless to say, when I followed through with questions my presence was not appreciated. This was my first, up close and personal experience of racism, and served as a catalyst for my involvement in social justice concerns. I continued to see many forms of racism throughout high school.

The last few weeks following the massacre of nine church members in Charleston, SC, have initiated long overdue discussions on racism, confederate flags and statues and southern heritage. Unfortunately, instead of discussion in some areas, shouting matches with participants holding confederate flags and signs dominate the conversation.

Columnist Eugene Robinson brought some historical perspective to the discussion by noting that the confederate battle flag in dispute in Charleston went up in 1961. It was placed on the state capitol grounds because of citizen anger over the push for integration. Throughout the south legislation to integrate and civil rights marches were met with hostility. Robinson stated, “The flag was Charleston’s way of giving the federal government an obscene gesture.”

The debate about the flag and confederate statues involves the mantra, “It’s heritage, not hatred.” However, the heritage is slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws and the beginning of the Ku Klux Klan. Drive though Nashville on I-65 and you will see a large statue of a confederate general on a horse. The statue honors Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. In Kentucky there is an effort to remove the statue of Jefferson Davis from the state capitol and place it in the Kentucky History Museum. The decision rests with the Kentucky Historical Commission. The irony is that Kentucky was not a confederate state and two out of three Kentuckians fought for the union. Yet, there are dozens of confederate statues throughout the state and only two union statues.

I believe that confederate flags and statues belong in museums or cemeteries. The flag is offensive to millions of people because it represents racial intolerance. If one wants to display the flag on a front lawn or car, that is a first amendment right.

Another concern is “revisionist history” that involves pressure on book companies to provide history books to southern schools that create a different history: slavery was only a side issue. It was “the war between the states,” not the civil war.

My hope is that the tragedy in Charleston will encourage discussion on symbols and racism and create more peaceful responses in our cities.

Posted in Peace & Justice Blog