When I was 11 years old in 1976, my fifth-grade class took a field trip to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Just before we boarded up the buses to head back home to the all-white town I grew up in, we were allowed to visit the souvenir shop.
Since I collected coins and had followed the moon landings since the first one in 1969, I bought some coins commemorating some of the Apollo missions. I also got some freeze-dried ice cream just like the astronauts ate.
The shop also had flags about the size of a sheet of theme paper on a wooden stick. After making all those space-related purchases I didn’t have enough money to buy two flags, so I had to pick between an American flag and a Confederate flag. I actually made a thoughtful decision about it. The American flag would be patriotic, I thought. But everybody had those. The Confederate flag would be different. And I could buy an American flag later. You could find them just about anywhere.
So, with the decision made, I took a couple of steps forward and reached out for the Confederate flag. Just as I did, another boy about my same age did the same thing and our arms almost collided. We both pulled back and said something like “Excuse me.”
Then I looked into the other boys’ face. It wasn’t white like mine. He was black, and he had been reaching across in front of me to get an American flag. I immediately felt ashamed because I knew the Confederate flag represented the South in the Civil War. He was about the same age as me, so I knew he knew what it meant, too. I thought about grabbing an American flag instead, pretending that’s what I had been reaching for all along, but the other boy already knew I had been intending to grab for a Confederate flag. So I looked him in the face with an “I’m really sorry” look and sheepishly grabbed the flag I had already chosen.
I know you are wondering why a space museum would sell a Confederate flag, and, to be honest, I even wondered that myself as an 11-year-old boy. I’m sure they don’t sell them there now. But they did, in 1976, sell such a thing in a museum dedicated to American space achievement.
I did not grow up thinking badly of people who were different than me. I heard adults use the N-word plenty of times, but I never thought black people were in any way inferior to white people or that they shouldn’t have the same rights.
But from fifth grade on, every time I went into my bedroom I saw my own little symbol of the Confederacy and felt bad for that kid who had watched me buy it. I didn’t feel bad enough to get rid of it, though, and at some point I picked up an American flag to hang beside it to balance things out.
Years later, near the end of my freshman year of college, I had an experience. Many of us evangelicals call it being “born again.” Maybe you could say it’s when I stopped playing church and because serious in my walk with God. I gave my heart to Jesus Christ and accepted him as my savior.
As soon as this happened I began to feel differently about a lot of things, and one of them was looking at that Confederate flag still hanging in my bedroom. It had given me a twinge every time I had looked at if over the past eight years, but now there was an absolute conviction in my heart to take it down.
I threw it in the trash, but that didn’t seem like enough, so I took it out behind the house and burned it in a 55-gallon drum my dad used to have for our burnable garbage. I tossed some trash on top of it and set it afire. Good riddance. I felt better about it and wished I had done it earlier. It was part of the process of taking the “unclean” things out of my life.
I know plenty of people don’t view the flag as a symbol of racial hatred, but plenty more do. I wouldn’t want to have African-American visitors to my home see a rebel flag there and then be forced into an uncomfortable argument over “state’s rights” and “Southern pride.” And if I wouldn’t want black friends seeing the flag, I don’t want to see it myself.
Southern states didn’t fly that flag after the Civil War. It only came to the Capitol domes of Southern states during the civil rights era as symbolic middle finger to the federal government telling them they couldn’t continue to oppress black people.
If you feel comfortable flying a rebel flag, that’s up to you. But Jesus told his followers to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I wouldn’t consider someone my friend who displayed an emblem intended by many to keep me a second-class citizen or to intimidate me into living in fear.
I consider myself a live-and-let-live libertarian-minded conservative. But my politics are second to my God. I’m proudly American, but my nation is second to my God. My region is second to my God, and so is my family. I’m a better American, a better Southerner, a better husband, a better son and a better friend because of it.
A friend of mine noted on Facebook today she was sick of seeing Christians putting Confederate flags as their avatars. She quoted Paul from 1 Corinthians 8 when he told believers to abstain from eating meat if it offends your brother. Several other Scriptures, including Romans 14, could be added.
When I picked up that Confederate flag in 1976 I was immediately ashamed I had done so, but it took me several years and a change of heart to get rid of it. It’s time the South Carolina State Capitol, and America as a whole, did the same.