Often ignored behind the whitewashed myth of the Founding Fathers and the so-called birth of a nation is that the Declaration of Independence was strategically limited to only white males due to, in part, delegates from South Carolina who balked on including language rejecting slavery.
My home state of South Carolina was also first to secede from the Union, hand-in-hand with Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia in, explicitly, defense of slavery. South Carolina rebuked the Union for its “deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States,” such as Mississippi who declared bluntly: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.”
Even as slavery began to collapse under the weight of its inhumanity and immorality, free whites in South Carolina increased the number of slaves—with nearly half of families owning slaves by 1850—at the beginning of the Civil War.
And in the past few days, my home state of South Carolina has once again paraded in front of the U.S. and the world the bitter clinging to tarnished symbols and strident shouting of empty slogans that temporarily stalled the long-overdue act of bringing down the Confederate battle flag from state grounds.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught in the rural upstate South Carolina high school I attended as a student.
One of my non-fiction units for American literature included a consideration of persuasive writing, beginning with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and then examining Thoreau’s influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
The last works of that unit focused on Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, King, and Malcolm X—a dedicated and extended honoring of black history and debate that was much more than a token nod such as black history month.
One moment when I was handing out King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” remains with me to this day.
A white male student brushed the photocopy of King’s letter off his desk top and into the floor with a hissed, “I ain’t reading that nigger.”
My class included black students, but my being white and this student’s own life experience had taught him his perverse righteous indignation was entirely justified; he might as well has snarled “heritage, not hate.”
More calmly than I should have, I returned the handout to his desk with my hand on the papers, and looking him in the eye explained he would never say that word again in my room, and he would in fact read what I had assigned.
For many if not all of my students, this was probably the first time they had witnessed a white male—from their home town, in fact—take such a stand.
In all-white situations throughout my life in the South, racist slurs and veiled racist comments and jokes have been and remain a cruel norm.
The debate about removing the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina state grounds has not been the shining moment our state or the nation deserves. The rhetoric has too often been lies about the flag somehow not being a racist banner of slavery from the beginning, the narratives have mostly omitted the racist intent of resurrecting that flag in the early 1960s as an ugly middle finger to desegregation and civil rights for blacks, and the state representatives and senators who were democratically elected but chose to clutch still that flag have exposed ugly truths about denial and racial inequity surviving and even thriving today.
Bringing down that flag is a symbolic act itself, but it is also a movement that must continue to include real admissions about race inequity and new policies that make this world a better place.
To bring down a flag, to change the names of buildings, to remove statues—these are necessary acts of facing, not erasing, history.
Memorials that honor the dishonorable are indignities to the true value of history, or even heritage.
There is no dishonor in admitting our failures; in fact, facing our past and acknowledging man’s inhumanity to humans (and such gender-biased language is suitable here) is the most honorable thing we can do.
If there is any dignity in democracy, the next step after symbolically removing that flag must be removing the elected officials who have tied their voices and their names to a lost cause that was corrupt from the beginning.