In ethics and history courses this year, I have asked students about the (Confederate) flag and their response as Christians in the South. We heard all the ‘pat’ arguments, but none compared to the story of Joy, an African-American student.
One day, my son Aaron asked if “Mark” could come over and play. Mark’s mother brought him to the house and the boys began to play in the yard. Somewhat to our surprise, she didn’t leave right away and eventually asked if she could stay while the boys played.
A few minutes into our conversation, she said, “You are not from south Georgia, are you?”
We laughed, and said no, we had just moved here to work at the Baptist college.
She replied, “I didn’t think so; because if you were a native, you would never have invited us over to your house.”
I had grown up in Richmond, Va., and was a member of the first class of ninth graders in 1970 to be bussed across the city to integrate a historic African-American high school. I knew firsthand about race relations in the 1960s and 1970s.
But the separate white and black proms, the high schools with both white and African-American homecoming queens, the casual use of racial stereotypes and the apparent prejudices on “both sides of the tracks” were still something of a culture shock in the 1990s.
Consequently, I have observed the persistent conflict over the Confederate flag in southern states with much interest.
In the November 2002 elections in Georgia, Sonny Perdue was swept into office on an anti-Gov. Roy Barnes vote. Political pundits agree that Perdue was elected because public schools teachers were angry at Barnes’ education reforms, and most importantly, Perdue promised Georgians the opportunity to vote on restoring the Confederate battle symbol (the stars and bars) to the state flag.
Barnes had engineered a change in the state flag during his tenure that angered many Georgians who said the flag represented their Southern heritage and was not a symbol of racism.
Supporters of Barnes pointed out that the Georgia flag, with the Confederate emblem occupying over half its surface, was approved in 1956 in reaction to the federal mandate to integrate public schools.
In ethics and history courses this year, I have asked students about the flag and their response as Christians in the South. We heard all the “pat” arguments, but none compared to the story of Joy, an African-American student. Hear Joy’s story:
“As a little girl [in 1977] living in an all-white, affluent community in Augusta, Ga., two very vivid memories remain in my mind. When I first recalled these memories to my parents, they were shocked that I remembered these incidents, seeing that I was only 3 years old.
“My next-door neighbor, Peter had the brightest red hair, green eyes and more freckles on his face than I could count. We would play house, doctor, tag and hide-and-go-seek. I remember one day we were playing house in my room, and Peter said since I was his wife I was supposed to give him a kiss.
“Of course I thought that was gross, so I refused. Immediately, he said, “Well I didn’t want a kiss from you anyway, you n—-r!” Peter ran out of the room and I just cried. I remember feeling so hurt, even though I did not know what a ‘n—-r’ was.
“The other event occurred on a Halloween night. After going to sleep, I heard the sound of glass shattering and felt the grasp of my mother’s hand on my arm pulling me up and quietly telling me that we were going to play hide-and-seek in the closet.
“A monstrous bright red flame coming from the yard caught my eye, and I saw what I thought were white ghosts outside on the lawn. Before I could speak, my mother, sister, and I (my father was out of town on business that night) were all crouched down in the closet, hearing a chorus of men’s voices shouting words like, ‘N—-rs go home’ and ‘We lynch n—-rs!’
“As I tried to wedge myself in the safety of my mother’s arms, I remember knowing instinctively not to speak, not to say a word. I do not remember much after that. But one thing I did remember at 3 years old was that I was a n—-r.”
Joy is obviously opposed to any attempt to make the Confederate stars and bars a symbol for all people of a “united” state. How could it, she says, when the memories evoked are memories of enslavement, Jim Crow oppression, lynching and hatred?
She wonders about the persistence of the Old South mentality that constantly denies how African-Americans were and continue to be treated as inferior.
She wonders why Christians are at the forefront of advocating the restoration of a symbol of division when the gospel begs for unity and equality. And so do I.
Doug Weaver is professor of Christianity and chair of the religion and philosophy division at Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, Ga.
Weaver is also the author of Every Town Needs a DowntownChurch, A History of FBC, Gainesville, FL(SBHS, 2000)
Doug Weaver is Director of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Baptist Studies in the Department of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.