incremental marker…

Posted on Wednesday 24 June 2015

I suppose most Southerners have something to say about  the goings on after the Charleston shooting and all the media attention about the battle flag. As a boy growing up in Chattanooga Tennessee literally in an area peppered with cannons and Civil War Monuments, I had no idea that the Civil War was even about slavery. That seems as outrageous to my to say as it must be to read. When I hear other people say things like that, I hear it as possibly reconstructing history, but for me to say otherwise would be a lie. My Dad was from an Italian immigrant family; grew up in a Northern coal mining town on the wrong side of prejudice; and came South on a football scholarship. My mother was from rural Georgia – a vaudeville family – and a soft spoken do-gooder somewhere to the left of anyone else in Tennessee I ever met. We were raised to sit in the back of the bus and go out of our way to be respectful to black people. It was odd, because I never met anyone else that said that, But for that matter, I can’t recall anyone actually talking about segregation much in those times. It was just part of the fabric of life. And it was disconnected from the stories of chivalry and honor – and that flag.

With that kind of background, I was an early convert when the Civil Rights Movement got started, even in high school ["class of sixty, best in Dixie"]. And by 1966, my new wife and I were veteran marchers and picketers, but the flag hadn’t changed in my mind. We took a camping trip from our apartment in Memphis in the summer of 1966, and that’s when the flag came into things [selective memory…]:
Back in the summer of 66, my young wife and I took a camping trip down the Mississippi Delta from Memphis where I was finishing Medical School. We wanted to take some Jim Crow pictures to preserve what it had been like there – thinking that we were finally on the downhill leg of the Civil Rights Movement, and people might try to forget. In the course of our travels, we saw a sign to Ruleville Mississippi – a place we’d heard of from watching the Democratic Convention when the Mississippi Freedom Democrat Party tried to be seated. Their most eloquent spokesperson was Fannie Lou Hamer from Ruleville, a tiny town in the heart of the cotton fields that covered the Delta in those days. [Notice that President Johnson cut her off of national television during her speech]:

As we drove into town, we knew we were in the right place for our photographs. There was a Dairy Queen on the way into town with a strange addition built onto the front of it with a large picture window. On the back wall was a huge Confederate Battle Flag tacked up on the wall. The sign outside said, White Citizens Council Annex, Private Club. So we drove through town, photographing the "white" and "colored" signs that had defined the segregated South of our childhood. My wife was driving as I clicked away. She circled back, determined to get a picture of the White Citizens Council Dairy Queen. We parked nearby, but I noticed that the same two-tone blue 1956 Ford that had been following us earlier pulled up right behind. I also notice that there was a shotgun mounted vertically between the two guys in the front seat.

So we drove on, forgoing our photo-op, followed by the two-tone blue Ford. When we reached the Sunflower County Line, it mercifully turned around. When we finally stopped for gas and gathered some composure, we started wondering how they knew we were "foreigners." There, on the rear bumper of my car was the answer – a black and white A.C.L.U. bumper sticker that simply said, "JUSTICE." Our pictures didn’t survive the 50 years in between, but the memories did.
It seems peculiar to me that, until then, I hadn’t connected that flag with racism and it hadn’t solidly sunk in that the Civil War was indeed about slavery. How I could’ve been so involved in "the Movement" and yet be oblivious to how my childhood version of history actually went together with it is now beyond my comprehension. But seeing that flag in the Ruleville Mississippi White Citizens Council Dairy Queen picture window did the trick.

In the mid-1980s, my teenaged daughter and a friend announced that they were going to "a march." They’d heard us and our friends tell our epic tales of our marching days, and decided they wanted to get in on the action. There was a poor rural county north of Atlanta, all white, that was "racist." A school teacher had organized a small MLK day parade, that had been broken up by "the Klan." The next week, Hosea Williams, a local Civil Rights leader took a bus filled with students from the Black Atlanta colleges, and the same thing happened. So he got serious, and mobilized a big march. Meet at the King Center and ride buses up to this town. So the four of us showed up along with 20,000+ other Atlantans. They finally got all the City buses there and every church bus in town, and off we went. There were more marchers than people in that whole county. The comic relief was this armada of buses stopping on the Interstate for a 20,000 person strong pee break. Men on the port side at the fence, women in the woods on the starboard side. The county was overwhelmed by the invading horde [now a bustling suburb with McMansions in what used to be those empty fields].

But the point is that back then, the sides of the highway were lined with people, mouths agape, some of whom had denim jackets with Klan logos, waving those battle flags and throwing snowballs from what was left of a rare Georgia snowstorm. When we got back to the buses, we were among a few hundred people that didn’t get on a bus. By then, it was night, and we were gathered on an overpass. And here came the pickup trucks with battle flags mounted on the beds and people leaning out the windows twirling chains and hurling epithets. They had been soundly defeated and they were plenty mad. After about 45 very long minutes [during which I questioned my parental judgement], the State Troopers discovered us and herded us into a parking lot, calling for more buses. As fate would have it, our bus broke down as we got off  the Interstate in Atlanta, and we had to walk the full length of "Sweet Auburn Avenue" – the heart of the black Atlanta "club scene" with two very cute blond teens who were quite the objects of interest on this particular Saturday night. A memorable day – snowballs early and cat-calls late. But if I had any remaining romantic attachments to that flag, 45 minutes on that overpass put an end to them for good.

In 2001, then Georgia Governor Roy Barnes changed the Georgia flag, a leftover from segregationist days. It actually probably cost him being re-elected [now I read our "new flag" was a confederate flag too. Who knew?]. But whatever, I feel kind of proud that the Southern States are moving towards finally removing those anachronistic symbols. Whatever they meant, or now mean, we can do without them:

I hate what happened to get things moving, that senseless shooting. But I didn’t know I’d live long enough to see this happen – no matter the stimulus. I mentioned that my two best friends died within a week of each other a little over a year ago [in memory…]. They were veterans of those days too, much more than I was. I’m just sorry they didn’t get to see this incremental marker of the change that was such an important goal in their lives. Change is so slow, and you never know just when or how it’s going to happen…
    June 25, 2015 | 9:20 AM

    thanks for your memories

    over the past few days i have wondered what non-media, non-politician, non-corporate spokespersons were thinking about the “anti-confederate-flag-event”

    June 25, 2015 | 12:46 PM

    The disingenuous, dishonest, and dispicable rhetoric coming mostly from the Left/Liberals is just astounding to hear and read, when much of Southern racism was fostered by the Democrats originally, and I don’t think they have had some moment of profound revelation and rejected such vile narrative, but just cloaked it with new and creative ways to suppress minorities. Not that I have much faith in Republican/Right wing values and agendas either, mind you.

    I have written about the difference between agendas and principles, and in my opinion, the difference comes down to what is selfish versus self-less.

    Gee, seems to echo much of what you have written about here for years, the selfishness of health care agendas by those looking for profit and control, and the principles of what drives responsible physicians and patients seeking to maintain their principles to help the public, as well as themselves, at the end of the day.

    Will you be interested in writing about the Supreme Court ruling today about subsidies, or is that out of bounds for your blog?

    Mine is on hiatus. I have nothing to write about concerning hope and faith these days, and I know, sad to admit, eh?

    Steve Lucas
    June 25, 2015 | 2:20 PM

    We live in a less than perfect world. Good people need to speak up when bad things happen in order to change for the better. My problem is I have seen two attractive young black women, obviously well educated, speak in the present tense of Jim Crow, segregation, and white supremacy.

    A white news anchor stated we should remove statues of all those who owned slaves including past Presidents. This rewriting of history will in some way stop the actions of the next crazy person or some perceived slight made either out of ignorance or accident.

    South Carolina has a governor of Indian decent and a black Senator. I might add it was politicians who made an issue of the governor’s gender and race. Atlanta is a city where you may find bad neighborhoods, but can go into any social setting and find race to be a non-issue.

    The Confederate flag is a relic of a past time, but a time that represents a country divided and an unimaginable loss of life. We can easily regulate this symbol to the history books.

    What we cannot do is seem to shake this immediate response that every problem is in some way related to racial bias. The largest failing urban centers in the US are run by Democrats. It was reported that the mayor of Baltimore told the police to stand down and allow the city to burn and before the riots had ended had applied for federal funds. Any question as to approving those funds is of course racially motivated.

    I have been blessed by knowing a number of black men and am a better man for knowing them. They all agree that for political reasons the black community has been made to feel they are victims and in exchange for their vote they will receive their “fair” share.

    This flag is a relic, and it taking it down will make some liberals feel good that they have done something, but this will not change the high black on black violence found in northern cities. This will not stop the large number of single parent homes of both races, again, often higher in the north. This will just be a flag.

    We need politicians to stop using this issue to divide this country. We need black studies teachers who know their subject. We need to end the excuses of culture and victimhood and hold people accountable for their actions.

    There is no need for a federal investigation into what is a mass murder and will more than likely result in the death penalty. People need to speak up in their personal lives when they see or hear racial slurs and everyone needs to lighten up. A bad joke or misstatement is just that, not an attack on an entire group.

    Steve Lucas

    James O'Brien, M.D.
    June 25, 2015 | 4:33 PM

    If the “suboxone defense” works in mitigation at either the trial or the penalty phase, look for some serious ramifications in the clinic not to mention all hell breaking loose in terms of civil unrest. I think it would be done as a treatment simply out of medical-legal concerns and negative associations.

    June 25, 2015 | 7:36 PM

    A baby boomer, I grew up and was educated in a suburb of New York City. I recall learning that the Civil War had something to do with cotton and trade.

    Mentioning the division of the country over slavery simply was not done then. It seems incredible now. Clearly, the entire country was steeped in denial for at least 100 years.

    It’s a good thing that Walmart, based in Arkansas, led the way removing an offensive symbol from their shelves, showing a sensitivity that’s long overdue in the South.

    June 25, 2015 | 8:00 PM

    I first learned about the Civil War in a public school in Texas. It seemed like the South won on a technicality. Then I moved to Indiana and was stunned by how many people in the class knew a lot about particular battles. Then I studied it in college and Sherman’s March to the Sea was made vivid. Everyone in public schools should have that college class in high school.

    berit bryn jensen
    June 26, 2015 | 9:54 AM

    Thank you for your story – and thank you for the link to the courageous, righteous Fannie Lou Hamer! Impressive! Worth remembering. “Sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She reminds me of a recently deceased Norwegian – Fredrik Fasting Torgersen – who said in an interview that he had learnt to keep his back straight so he could carry and endure what life and the unjust justice system had wrought onto him. Torgersen served 15 years in jail, two of them in solitary confinement, for the rape and murder of a young girl professional forensics today and most Norwegians acknowledge that he did not commit, but the establishment time and again refused to give him a retrial, despite the overwhelming evidence for his innocence. He died shortly after his last appeal for a retrial was made. Justice can be mighty slow, in the USA, here and everywhere. We can take heart, fight on and carry ourselves straight, like Torgersen and the admirable Fannie Lou Hamer. Thanks!

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