Statues, flags and racism

I am conflicted. I was appalled by President Trump’s reaction to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., and his obvious support of extremist right-wing groups. On the other hand, I agree with him that doing away with our Confederate monuments is a mistake.

To be clear, I have no sympathy for the Rebel cause in the Civil War. And like a lot of border state families, I had ancestors on both sides. My grandmother had a brother who was a captain in the Union army and another who was a Confederate soldier. My great-great grandfather, Lewis Baird, died in a Confederate prison. He was a political prisoner and a personal friend of CSA President Jefferson Davis. According to a letter to the family from a fellow prisoner, Davis visited Lewis at the prison in Salisbury, N.C., and told him that if he signed an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, he could walk out with him as a free man. Lewis refused. He died a year later.

I do believe that some monuments should be removed, such as the bust of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Tennessee state capitol in Nashville. Forrest, by most accounts, was a despicable character, an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and should not be honored. But Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and thousands of others were honorable men who felt obliged to support their native southland. I can see no reason to try to wipe out their role in our history.

We shouldn’t be so quick to condemn everybody who supported the South for views held at that time. Right or wrong, as we see it today, most Southerners, I believe, sought to defend a way of life they cherished. Sadly, that way of life included slavery, but that was not the only issue in the Civil War and most of those who fought in that war were not slave owners.

Fueling the rush to go to war were huge economic issues, such as trade barriers that protected the industrial North, but worked against the exports of the agrarian South, and political issues such as the question of the rights of the states, important to the South, versus a strong central government, preferred by the North.

Historians still debate these issues.

We have come a long way in the 152 years since the Civil War ended. But clearly we still have a very long way to go.

In my opinion, removing statues certainly will not only fail to change anybody’s racist views, but also will continue to inflame divisions and hatred in our country.

The Confederate battle flag is another question. Unfortunately, this flag has been appropriated by the white supremacists as a symbol of racial bigotry and hatred, despoiling it to the extent that it no longer represents the brave men who fought and died under it in a war not of their making.

That said, those who want to fly the flag over their homes or display it on their cars or pickup trucks should be allowed to do so. The flag says a lot about the person who flies it, and it should be that person’s right to make such a statement.

It should not fly, in my opinion, from any public building, especially a government building. But banning it from personal use would be an affront to our Constitution’s guarantee of free speech.

The really tragic thing about this whole controversy is that all these years later some of the same tensions divide our nation today as did in the 1860s. Will we ever get over it?

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2 Responses to Statues, flags and racism

  1. Edgar,

    Found your website looking for historical info on Jellico. My grandfather was Charles Smith (1892-1978) and my father was Frazier Smith (1936-2005). I spent many enjoyable summers and holidays with my grandparents in Jellico.

    I have lived in Mississippi since 1993. I agree with your thoughts on Confederate Monuments, tearing them down just deepens the divisions. I think you would enjoy a book written about the South from a historical economic perspective. It is titled ‘Cotton and Race In The Making Of America – Gene Dattel 2009.

    Thanks for some good reads,

    Walt

  2. Correction, Dad was born in 1933. They lived on Cumberland Ave across from the McCleary’s . Many a night as a kid I would sit by my grandad on the porch swing and he and Jake McCleary would talk business and banking.
    I have spent the evening reading your stories of Jellico as a kid. What a pleasure. Sounded much like my father telling me about Sheffy, Charles Dodge, Jim Hackney, Alice Ann Trammel, you, and many others. If you would be up for a short visit to reminisce, we come through Knoville periodically when visiting my mother in JohnsonCity.

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