Main Street was mobbed. My daughter and I dodged the milling throngs of Soda City, the weekly street festival and farmers market in our adopted hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. We strode past the food trucks and CBD oil stands and easels of palmetto-tree watercolors with our eyes fixed farther down the street, toward the State Capitol. There another kind of celebration was taking place: Confederate Memorial Day.
Up ahead on the steps were clusters of Confederate Army reenactors, some wielding period rifles. A band nearby was blowing Dixie, and an unfurled battle flag of the Confederate States of America, roughly forty by sixty feet, was draped on the steps of the gold-domed Capitol building. We stopped at the traffic light on Gervais Street, next to a group of Black protesters. When the light changed, I turned to my daughter. She had witnessed Southern iconography during her college years in Richmond, living near Monument Avenue with its oversized statues of Confederate heroes, now vanquished. But even she was shell-shocked.
“Let’s go talk to them,” I said. She nodded, then we crossed the street.
Confederate Memorial Day continues to be a legal holiday in the state of South Carolina. Observed on May 10, it marks the anniversary of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson’s death in 1863. Jackson died of pneumonia a week after his troops accidentally fired on him during the Battle of Chancellorsville, fought near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and his name and legacy continue to be honored throughout the South. There is a longstanding and complicated history in South Carolina of embracing the Lost Cause, an interpretation of the past that depicts the Confederacy’s cause in the so-called War of Northern Aggression as noble, more concerned with economics and states’ rights than the preservation of slavery. With the passage of Act 80 in 1896, South Carolina recognized two legal holidays: May 10 for Stonewall Jackson, and January 19 for the birthday of Robert E. Lee. Old traditions die hard. Even today, most state offices close on Confederate Memorial Day.
South Carolina is not alone. Every April, state offices in Mississippi and Alabama shut down for their Confederate Memorial Days. Legislators and advocates in all three states trumpet “Heritage, Not Hate.” But not everyone is enamored. Former South Carolina congressman Joe Cunningham wrote last year during an unsuccessful bid for governor, “This is another example of how our state continues to live in the past. It’s embarrassing. When I’m governor, we’re going to end Confederate Memorial Day and make Election Day a state holiday instead.”
Even in a state where 29 percent of the population is Black, far higher than the national average of 13 percent, white conservative Republicans dominate the state legislature and national political offices (in addition to Tim Scott, the only Black Republican senator in the United States). It’s hard to imagine Confederate Memorial Day disappearing, despite the efforts of grassroots campaigns in the politically blue bubbles of Columbia, Greenville, and Charleston.
It's true that then-governor Nikki Haley removed the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds in 2015, in the aftermath of the killing of nine Black members of a Bible study group at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston by a white supremacist. She should be commended for that. But it’s also true that Gov. Haley had fiercely resisted calls to remove the flag prior to the massacre.
For those of us who have a visceral objection to Confederate Memorial Day—who are appalled at not only commemorating but celebrating an economic and social system that oppressed a race for over two centuries—how should we engage a worldview that doesn’t see the harm of such celebrations, or that embraces the mythology of the Lost Cause?
My theology requires me to recognize, first and foremost, that every human being possesses an inner light, a spark of divinity, which orients me toward hope—not an eschatological hope of a coming Kingdom of God, but hope in the moment, firmly rooted in the concrete and tangible expressions of the love, welcome, forgiveness, and inclusivity we read in the stories of Jesus’ ministry.
What then must we do?
Upon entering the grounds of the Capitol, my daughter and I approached three men near the steps, just a few feet from the massive Confederate flag. Two were in Confederate Army regalia, one with a water bottle in hand. Another wore khakis, a polo shirt, and sunglasses.
Just as I nodded and extended my hand, my daughter blurted out, “What do you guys think you’re doing?”
Not the opening I anticipated, but I admired my daughter’s bluntness. The man in the polo shirt smiled. “Just honoring our ancestors,” he said.
Unsure, I shook their hands and removed my sunglasses. “My mother’s family is from North Carolina,” I said. “We spent our summers at Wrightsville Beach, near Wilmington. Ever heard of it? Lots of ancestors from the South. I’m one of you.”
And in a sense, that’s true. James Ewell Bell, my great-great-grandfather, originally from Virginia, was a captain and surgeon in the Confederate States Army. His headstone sits in our family burial ground in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington, along with kinfolk going back to the Revolutionary War. James Ewell Bell owned eleven African Americans, and according to Freedmen’s Bureau Records, 1865–1878, all of those enslaved were from the Durden family. At least once a year I make a grudging pilgrimage to Oakdale, and when I do, I wonder: Where would I have stood on slavery in the run-up to the Civil War? Would I have acted any differently than my great-great-grandfather James?
I’d like to think I would have joined the ranks of the great Quaker Levi Coffin and the other abolitionists of the North Carolina Manumission Society to work on the Underground Railroad and fight our country’s greatest sin. But after six decades on this earth, I’m increasingly aware of how difficult it is to recognize and acknowledge our own complicity in injustice. I’m part of a society that perpetuates racism, demeans women, mistreats children, and mutilates the environment. Of course James Ewell Bell was horribly wrong about slavery. But before I smugly assert my moral superiority to my great-great-grandfather, I need to ask: How will I be judged by my descendants a couple centuries into the future? Will they view me as I view my great-great grandfather?
“My family was too poor to own slaves,” the man in the polo shirt said. “They were dirt farmers. All we’re doing here is remembering them.” He paused, then began again. “And don’t forget, only 1 percent of the South owned slaves.”
There it was again: the 1 percent fallacy, disproven by scholars for decades but still cited by apologists of the Confederacy. Joseph Glatthaar, history professor at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, estimates that nearly 20 percent of households in seceding states owned human beings in 1860. Other historians suggest even more.
I turned toward the crowd. Several police officers stood on the perimeter of the Capitol grounds, some of them chatting and laughing with groups of reenactors. The Black protesters on the other side of the street remained calm, a few holding posters, staring intently at the drama in front of them. What must they be thinking? I couldn’t imagine.
“It’s been over 150 years,” I said, nearly pleading. “Isn’t it time to move on? This flag and this celebration is about oppression, a system of enslavement, of hatred, not heritage. Look at those people over there.” I pointed to the group of Black protestors.
“They don’t seem bothered by it,” the man replied.
“So tell me,” I said, trying to steady my voice, “how would you feel if your ancestors were enslaved?”
The reenactor with the water bottle, who had been glaring at me since my arrival, flicked the bottle at me, sprinkling my pants with droplets. “This is bullshit!” he said, then walked away.
“Sorry about that,” the man in the polo shirt said. “He gets pretty fired up on Confederate Day.”
After an awkward pause I spoke again.
“You’re hurting people,” I said. “You’re hurting this state. Is that what you want?”
“We’re just honoring our ancestors,” he said. “It’s about heritage. That’s all.”
Silence. I thought of another tack.
“Have you ever heard of Walter Edgar?”
Walter Edgar is a celebrity in these parts: a retired professor of history from the University of South Carolina and author of the authoritative, seven-hundred-page history of the state, as well as a radio personality and a member of the Order of the Palmetto, the highest honor a citizen of South Carolina can receive. Everyone here knows Walter Edgar.
“Yeah, sure, I’ve heard of him.”
“You should read his books,” I said. “See what he says about heritage and history, and about the Civil War and Reconstruction. I was just talking to him last week and—”
“You know Walter Edgar?” he said, incredulous.
“Yes,” I said. “We publish his books.” I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out a business card from the University of South Carolina Press and handed it to him. “Let me know if you want one of his books,” I said, “and I’ll send it to you.” He smiled and thanked me.
It was time to go. I wasn’t sure how to end the conversation.
“Well,” I said, “We agree to disagree.” I extended my hand, and we shook. As I left, I turned and said the only thing that came to mind.
“Peace be with you.”
I never heard from the man in the sunglasses. Our conversation didn’t change his thinking, I’m certain of that. And I’m not sure I did the right thing, as a citizen or as a father. Another Confederate Day has come and gone. I’ll show up next year, on May 10, if there’s a gathering at the Capitol. But I wonder what I’ll do then. As I acknowledge the inner light in all people, the divine spark, what will hope require? Engagement? Protest? Anger? Moral revulsion? All of the above?
I think I’ll talk it over with my daughter.