Watching the riots in the wake of the tragic killing of George Floyd have led me to put down some thoughts that I’ve had for awhile.
For background, I’m a white man in my early 50s. I’ve lived in Alabama just about my entire life.
A few years ago, a man came to speak at our church. He was a white man on staff at a small church in the middle of an urban, inner-city Birmingham area church. He told us about some of the struggles his church and his members (predominantly black) were going through and how we could help.
Later, I had coffee with him to find out more. He told me “before you start, I want to give you some homework”. This surprised me a little, but – OK. He asked me to read a book, “Divided by Faith”, and watch a video documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.
The documentary was hosted by Henry Louis Gates. I knew he was a professor and had been in the news a little before over an incident that resulted in the “Obama Beer Summit”. I’ll admit that based on what I had heard about that incident – I had a slightly negative opinion/perception of him.
I’ll also admit to being pleasantly surprised at the documentary. I think I was expecting to be lectured about “white privilege”, but it really wasn’t like that. I found it very educational.
It was also disturbing. Since one of the topics was slavery, this isn’t surprising. While watching, I had a thought which really made the evil of slavery hit home for me.
A few years before (in 2009), America was shocked to find out that Jaycee Dugard, who had been kidnapped at the age of 11 in 1991, was still alive and had been in captivity for 18 years. She had been raped repeatedly and had two children whose father was her kidnapper.
As awful as that was, when the public and law enforcement found out about her – she was rescued. What occurred to me while watching the documentary was that slavery was this same crime, but instead of a shocking outlier – it was a “protected-by-law” institution. Imagine Jaycee Dugard escaping and when the police found her, returning her to her captors. That (over and over) was slavery.
I mentioned I’ve lived in Alabama almost my whole life. I did go to college in Boston for a couple of years. I’m embarrassed now to say – for part of that time a Confederate flag hung on my bedroom door like a poster. It was an ignorant, insensitive act with no malice intended. In my mind, it was a “Southern pride” thing – part of a friendly regional rivalry with some of my Yankee friends. (I was very outnumbered.)
Despite our protests that the Confederacy was about “states rights” and “regional pride”, I feel safe in saying that – for our black brothers and sisters, it means “you are not as good as us, and you are not part of us”.
I think that Birmingham’s mayor did the right thing by telling the protestors and rioters who wanted to tear down the Confederate memorial “Let me handle this” and he did. It was time for it to go. Now it’s time for a lot more things to change.
I still like the idea of Southern pride, but one that all of us – black and white (and any other color) – can share and be a part of. Confederate imagery divides us. Let’s come up with some “New South” imagery that we can all display proudly.