“I don’t get what’s wrong with the confederate flag – taking it down would be like erasing a part of history.” This was the majority opinion of some of the (white) church people when recent news was brought up at the end of the small group meeting. As locals, they have been born and raised with that southern pride that so endears them to this symbol (of heritage, not racial superiority). I’m not a local, but I do know one thing: one cannot simply erase history by taking down a flag. Nor can putting one symbol to rest erase centuries of racial issues.
I think the problem is not either/or, but both/and. It’s not that the flag represents either racial concerns or southern heritage, but that it represents both racial concerns and southern heritage depending on your point of view. It’s been 150 years since the end of the Civil War. It’s been 52 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech. In all of this time, we haven’t overcome racial concerns. How can we when some of us show off our heritage and others only see a sign of racial superiority?
Look, I get pride. But there’s such a thing as humility. Does your symbol of heritage have to be this one? Or can all of you agree that it’s time to to select a symbol with no racial concerns – one that every southerner by blood, by spirit, and by choice (or not) can unite you all? I hear that children have no shortage of imagination – so you can make a contest of it; teach them about the south – past, present, and give them hope for a future. Ask them to create a symbol and ask everyone to put the best ones to a vote. The kid that makes the winning symbol gets a scholarship and history can take a turn in a new direction.
But if your symbol of heritage has to be this one – tell me this: how do you plan on overcoming the racial concerns that others see that you do not see when the flag is on display?
(Tulsa Race Riot description of events – I tried to keep it PG- General; but I thought you ought to be warned.)
My home state knows it’s history. How it was land that was promised to Native Americans. How that promise was broken. How all sorts of settlers were allowed to race to stake a claim in that land. It’s a place that didn’t choose sides during the Civil War, but they weren’t immune from racial tension. In Tulsa in the 1920s, there was a race riot. For 75 years the truth of what had happened had been covered up and was omitted by the history books. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s that the incident was investigated and all the pieces were put together: the most common explanation was that Dick Rowland (black, 19 years old) tripped as he got onto the elevator and, as he tried to catch his fall, he grabbed onto the arm of Sarah Page (white, 17 years old, the elevator operator), who then screamed. A clerk working nearby heard the noise and went to investigate. Realizing how dangerous the situation looked, Dick fled to his family in the Greenwood district, a black neighborhood. The next morning, some black patrolmen discovered him and took him into the courthouse for his own protection as there were already threats against his life. Some of Dick’s clients (as he was a shoe-shiner) were white lawyers who defended him saying that the accusations of an assault were false as they knew him well enough to know such a thing wasn’t in his character. But such things were not easily contained. A sensationalist newspaper picked up the story and told the worst possible version of events. Given the per-existing racial tension, the story just made things worse and played on their fears and made them angry. About an hour after the newspaper story was released, hundreds of men had gathered around the court house- this was at 4. p.m.. Sheriff McCullough was determined to avoid an incident similar to the one that had happened under his predecessor’s watch. So he called in all of his people and arranged a defensive line around the courthouse, disabled the elevator, and gave his people guns with orders to shoot anyone who entered the building. They were to protect Dick, who by now was understandably frightened by a mob of hundreds who were out to murder him. Wanting to support their own, about thirty members of the black community showed up with guns to help the sheriff defend Dick they didn’t stay long. Many members of the white mob realized that they had failed to bring guns, so they went to go get some. Much to their disappointment, the National Guard Armory turned them away, so they had to go further away to go and get weapons. By the time they returned to the scene, there were around two thousand angry white men, mostly armed. Every effort to talk these men down failed. At some point, other members of the Greenwood community would drive by to see what was going on and to support Dick. Rumors had been flying all afternoon, a second group of seventy-five armed black men decided to go to the courthouse. According to eyewitnesses, there already had been shots fired into the air throughout the night with increasing frequency; a white man is alleged to have told one of the armed black men to surrender his pistol. The man refused, and a shot was fired. That first shot may have been accidental, or meant as a warning shot; it was a catalyst for an exchange of gunfire. This was shortly after 10:00 p.m.. 2,000 against 75, out-manned and outgunned, the two groups fire back and forth as the black group flees back to Greenwood. Looting happened along the way. A crowed of people just getting out of the movie theater gets caught in the fray and panics, fleeing in all directions. The officials tried to get their people in place to protect the white neighborhoods that surrounded the Greenwood. At one point, people on a train were told to get down on the floor as the train was being shot at on both sides. At 1:00 a.m., the white mob began to start fires to black businesses. When the fire department responded, they were turned away by the armed mob. By 4:00 a.m. as many as two dozen businesses were on fire. There had been some brief attacks on the Greenwood community, firing at houses and cars. A great many decided to try to defend what was theirs, just as many opted to flee. By 5:00 a.m., homes were being broken into and it’s residents driven into the chaotic streets. Their possessions were stolen and fires were set even in the residences. The rest of the community wasn’t immune, other white families were also met with the mobs who demanded that they hand over their black servants or risk vandalism. Overwhelmed by the numbers of the mob, many black men surrendered. Most were taken to detention centers. The Oklahoma National Guard and 109 troops were called in. They declared martial law at 11:49 a.m. and had most of the violence suppressed by noon. Over 16 hours, 39 people were killed and there were over 800 injuries. 1,256 houses had burnt down, leaving 10,000 people homeless. Property damage was in the millions. Dick Rowland remained safe and was transported out of town in secrecy. He had never been charged but also never returned to Tulsa again. No individual white rioters were charged with a crime. But even these events didn’t end racial tension in Tulsa. Some tried to prevent people from rebuilding their homes by making it far too expensive. This effort failed.
For 75 years this story was kept out of the history books. People didn’t talk about it. My ancestors never heard about it. (We weren’t from Tulsa.) There was no flag to symbolize it. But it the effort to suppress the truth ultimately failed. Now we know what happened. Now we can learn our long-forgotten lesson. We can talk to survivors, comb through records, ask our ancestors about it. We just have to break the silence.
Taking down the Confederate flag will not erase the 4 years of Civil War history. It will not undo 150 years of racial issues. What it will do is to challenge us in how we see the world and understand one another’s perspective. It may very well be in human nature to live in an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ world, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot chose to share our world with them and make them part of us. I just don’t think that we can do that with a symbol of heritage and a symbol of racial concerns putting us on opposite sides.
One thing that is clear is that anger and fear make for a potent mix of destruction. It was these two things that are a common thread. Anger at the bad economy, anger about not getting or losing the job, anger about circumstances, fear that ‘those people’ are going to make things worse, fear that ‘those people’ are going to take the job that should have been handed to you, fear that circumstance will favor ‘those people’ and leave you with nothing. Anger and fear is the tool that Hitler used to get himself elected and carry out his ‘final solution’. Anger and fear is the tool that ISIS uses even now to call people to their flag. Even Christians are not immune from anger and fear clouding their judgement; it happens time and time again. It’s one lesson humanity hasn’t learned from yet. What would be a good way to teach us to overcome our fears and control our anger?