Confederate Memorial Day – thoughts on racial issues pt.1

Yesterday was Confederate Memorial Day (at least in South Carolina – other southern states celebrate it on other dates), and that provides me with a nice route of ingress into sharing some thoughts that have been swirling around my head for the last couple of months. Quite honestly, I think this will be a tough exercise for me, but I’ll do my best to put together cogent thoughts and not ramble on and on. In fact, I’ll probably end up writing two or three posts out of all the thoughts that are crashing around my brain.

It is not widely appreciated, even in the south, that there is still some considerable debate as to the origin of celebrating Memorial Day in honor of fallen U.S. soldiers. Officially, the town of Waterloo, NY, was declared the “birthplace” of Memorial Day by President Johnson and Congress in 1966. There are many competing traditions, however, that place its origin in southern states where southern women during the Civil War would go out to bury the dead and decorate the graves of the fallen with flowers and small flags after battles.

I was astounded when I moved to South Carolina to learn of Confederate Memorial Day’s existence. It was not something we celebrated in the Atlanta area when I was growing up. I was even more surprised to learn the following spring that it was a school holiday (it’s not anymore, but it was as few as four years ago). Obviously there are some demographic differences between south Atlanta and the low country, but still… I never expected to find a place where the south’s role in the Civil War was officially recognized and celebrated by a government entity.

What I struggle with on Confederate Memorial Day is why people want to celebrate it at all. I can understand someone who is a direct descendant of a Confederate soldier wanting to honor their ancestors for fighting and dying for a cause they believed in. But, for starters, there are people all over the world who are dying for something they believe in, and no one is suggesting that we have a “Muslim Martyr Memorial Day”, for instance. And, secondly, how many of the people that you know who get all amped up about the Confederacy and how “the south will rise again!”, who wear their “stars and bars” belt buckles and wave their Confederate flags – how many of them actually have ancestors who fought for the south? My guess is not all that many. Certainly not all of them. So why the fuss about Confederate Memorial Day?

I have to be transparent here. I am, by no means, an expert on the Constitution or constitutional law. But I have read the Constitution. And I have studied American history pretty extensively (I got a 5 out of 5 on the AP U.S. history exam). And, as I understand the Constitution and how it was interpreted in the late 1850s, I believe that the southern states were within their constitutional rights to secede from the Union. I don’t agree with their decision to do so, I don’t agree with their reasons for doing so (slavery-based economics, mostly), and I am certainly glad that the Union was preserved. But I also believe that the Civil War represented a war between two sovereign nations. (“History is written by the victors”, my history teachers used to say. Our own American Revolution would have been labelled a ‘civil war’ or ‘failed rebellion’ had the British won that war.) Perhaps those people who are adamant about celebrating Confederate Memorial Day simply identify more strongly with what might have been than I do.

But I suspect that a large portion of the push for celebrating Confederate Memorial Day is not really about honoring brave men who died fighting for what they believed, or remembering lost relatives, or standing up for 1850s constitutional rights. I suspect that it has much more to do with an innate desire in some people (I believe the desire is in us all – part of our sinful nature – but some deal with it in a more outward way) to be part of a society or culture in which they are dominant over another group instead of equal with all other groups. And, in the tradition of the American South, I believe that desire has more to do with race than anything else. (In South Carolina, for instance, officially recognizing Confederate Memorial Day was part of the compromise that finally made Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, birthday a recognized state holiday – in 2000.)

We’re almost two full generations removed from the Civil Rights Movement, and we’ve elected our first black president, but the fact is that racial issues still abound in the U.S., and not just in the south. And these issues are the substance of what’s been running through my head for the last few months. This post is already too long, and there’s so much more to say. So like I said, this will be the first of several posts in this train of thought.

What about you? Do you celebrate Confederate Memorial Day? Why or why not?

Peace.

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Posted on May 11, 2010, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I don’t celebrate it, I am a descendant of a Civil War Hero and a descendant of white indentured servants (who were closer to being slaves than owning any). The Civil Rights struggle as I understand it has now morphed into a Civil Dominance struggle. Someone once said “God made man, Sam Colt made them equal”- that is the sentiment I think is prevalent now. We are equal, everyone has the same legal status. The struggle we face now is a struggle for dominance. Every culture wants to be the dominant one. It’s not race anymore (though race is a part of it) but culture groups. The Union was preserved in the 1860’s, but we should use the term Union loosely. The underlying cause of the “War between the States” is the same cause that echo’s through our Union now: selfishness, greed, and power. I think there were those then who truly wanted to keep a community of “united” “states” in the spirit of the fore fathers, but the idea of “THE” “UNITED STATES” is what came out, and the struggle that ensued is the struggle we face today: whose culture is going to be the dominant culture of the most powerful country in the world……. Interestingly the idea of succession has come up again (though, I wonder how seriously).

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  2. succession should have been secession- bad typing and auto spell check weren’t following my thoughts…

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  3. Nice distinction about the way the term “United States” was used long ago. I think history bears out what you’re saying, that prior to the Civil War most people (at least in the South) viewed our nation more as “States that are united” rather than “THE United States”.

    And I think you’re on point, too, talking about our culture. Cultural dominance has come to mean “that culture which makes the most money and can afford the most advertising space”. The point I was trying to make is that, at least for some people, there is an innate desire that springs from our sinful nature that longs to take it beyond that – to not just dominate the market, but to show actual superiority over other cultures in some “meaningful” way.

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    • With you on that… We have some how skipped over the “Live such good lives among the Pagans… they may see our good deeds and praise God…”
      People will one day realize that we cannot legislate morality, self-reliance, spiritual adherence, or any of the other things that can actually improve our society. Only when we realize that it’s through voluntarily sharing the love and message of Christ (through word and DEED) that we can actually affect change.

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  4. dixiecrossdefender

    Confederate Memorial Day only becomes a racial issue if someone from either side of the argument chooses to make it one.
    The fact of the matter is that Confederate soldiers were made up of many different types of people from the South including black men, Native Americans, Hispanic people, Jewish men and even some of Asian descent in the Western Theaters of the War itself.
    Indeed Confederate soldiers were not even all Americans themselves. There were plenty of Irish immigrants, German volunteers, and others from Britain and her colonies who sailed to the South to help in her struggle for independence. Their graves can be found in places all over the world, including Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and even Australia.
    In South America especially, descendants of Confederates who left America after the war to establish a colony in San Paulo and Americana, Brazil to this day celebrate the Confederate heritage of those ancestors…and nearly all of them are of mixed ancestry including Portuguese, Brazilian, and African American…all of whom honor their ancestors free from the strife and racial baggage that exists here today in America (for proof see U-Tube videos or look up “Confederados” or “Festa Confederada” online and you may be surprised by what you find.
    For the most part Confederate Memorial Day is honored by groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, The United Daughters of the Confederacy, The Order of Confederate Rose and the Children of the Confederacy, or simply by individual Confederate descendants who honor all of these men by placing Confederate flags and flowers on the graves of the soldiers (many of whom are unknown). Others fly one of several types of Confederate flags from their homes on that day (usually these are people who fly US flags any other day of the year) and most often with a black or gray ribbon tied around the pole.
    I myself have attended the South Carolina Confederate Memorial Day service every year in Columbia, SC for ten years since becoming a member of the SCV. During that annual service, graves of Confederate and Union soldiers are decorated, a wreath placed at the monuments, Civil War re-enactors in period attire (not all of these are necessarily Confederates either) march in parade along with the members to the State House where another service is done and more wreaths and flags are placed at the monument there.
    In all that time, on my word as a Christian and as a Southerner (both that I do not take lightly I assure you) I have never heard anyone who took part in these events utter anything remotely racist or unpatriotic. Both would be disgusting to members of those organizations mentioned and a direct violation of the articles of membership in those groups.
    I will not deny politics are sometimes discussed…these days it seems everyone talks about them…however there are members of those groups who are both Conservative and Liberal (if you go by labels like that) and Democrats, Republicans, and Moderate (I myself am Libertarian)….the situation makes for some rather uh interesting conversations between services needless to say….(indeed the parking spaces reserved for the re-enactors I saw Obama bumper stickers, Palin stickers, Bush/Cheney stickers (yes some people STILL have them for some unknown reason…LOL!) pro-gun, pro-environmentalist, pro-women’s rights, ect. The only thing that brings us together is to remember our ancestors and their lives and deaths and the deeds they preformed in their struggle for independence.
    Okay before anyone says anything about that try to understand that the issues of the war, and indeed the idea of honoring war at all have nothing whatsoever to do with honoring the men and boys who died themselves. It’s about celebrating the lives of those who served.

    Now then the author of this blog has expressed some concerns about why some would honor Confederate Memorial Day and his opinion I believe is colored by his own politics and upbringing, or by experiences (either personal or from other sources) with people who indeed misuse both the Confederate flag and taint the very name of Southerner.
    It is not for me to judge anyone, and to be perfectly honest, in his place I would have similar concerns and approach the subject with caution…after all there is no way to know for certain that a person who flies or displays a Confederate flag does so for honorable reasons (remembering ancestors or Southern identity and pride) or for racist reasons of intimidation beyond approaching those who do so individually and inquiring.
    As for me, I have encountered both groups of individuals (thankfully the latter sort are less frequent these days…at least in the northern central parts of South Carolina). I will not deny there are individuals who do try to use the memories of my own ancestor and the Confederate soldier to further sordid political causes and for racial reasons. Vigilance against that sort are a constant for those of us who seek both the redemption of the Confederate flag and the right to honor our ancestors and our Southern homeland free of the scorn of others.
    I have seen signs in recent years thankfully that give me hope that someday I can drive my car (which also has a Confederate flag plate on the front) and never have to see my fellow Southerners of color (or even white ones for that matter) look hurt or angry for it.

    In the end we the descendants of the Confederate service man seek nothing but the benefit of the doubt, or at the very least indifference as we honor the memories of men and boys who died only to keep the land they were born on safe from the torch of an invader (that is the basic interpretation no matter if you consider Union soldiers liberators, or conquerors– the term applies in either case).
    The Confederate soldier was pardoned by his enemies, his battle flags he surrendered returned to their States of origin by order of President Roosevelt in 1905, he and his former Union opponents shook hands 50 and 75 years on the very battlefield of Gettysburg at the Reunion of Veterans, the US Congress recognizes the Confederate soldier as an American Veteran, and the President of the United States (including our very own first African-American President) has a wreath placed at the sites of these men’s graves at Arlington every US Memorial Day…”With Malice Toward None, With Charity Toward All” to quote another famous US President from Illinois.

    With all sincerity,
    Carl R.
    Dixie Cross Defender and Proud Southern American

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    • Wow, Carl, thanks for the thorough response! As a proud Southern American myself (and one whose heritage on my father’s side includes a plantation in what is now Riverdale, GA, that was destroyed by General Sherman, and Confederate veterans who fought for that plantation), I can totally understand why groups like the SCV, Daughters of the Confederacy, etc., would want to celebrate the honor and valor of relatives who fought for what they believe in. Unless I’m mistaken, to be a part of one of those groups, you have to be able to prove a direct lineage to a Confederate veteran, right? So that’s not exactly what I was addressing in my post.

      What I was addressing was 1)all the other people, groups, etc., who celebrate Confederate Memorial Day, and 2)why an organ of the State (the state of South Carolina) would make an official holiday celebrating their own rebellion against the United States (whether you see that rebellion as just or unjust, it was still a rebellion against a lawful and duly-elected government). In the South we tend to be very sensitive to racial issues, and often our way of dealing with them is to pretend that they don’t exist, or that we’ve moved beyond them. But the fact is that they’re still there, and we need to be intellectually honest enough to admit and confront them. I think the fact that South Carolina (in the year 2000, no less) refused to recognize the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a state holiday unless Confederate Memorial Day was also recognized bears this out. What is the reasoning behind that? Why pair MLK Day (the “pro-civil-rights, seeking equality for all people” holiday) with Confederate Memorial Day (the “celebrating men who fought a rebellion that was at least partially about preserving an economic system that included slavery” holiday)? Why not pair it with Susan B. Anthony Day? Both King and Anthony were advocates for equality for groups that were previously not considered equal… The issue just smacks of racial undertones. (This is a specific example, I know, but I think it is an illuminating one.)

      And that’s what I was trying to point out in this post, and in this series of posts. Racial issues exist, and we need to admit and address them. Our Southern states and our country won’t experience true healing until we can all do this. Check out my more recent post “Why I’ve been pondering racial issues lately” and an older post here titled “The Day my Self-Image Shattered” for a little more insight into what I’m talking about and where I’m coming from.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful response!

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  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Racial Issues, pt. 2 « The Pursuit of God

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