“We’re the only country that flies the flag of the loser.”
I still have the business card he handed me for his ham radio show. It reads, “God Bless the South” with a Confederate Flag prominently displayed. The courthouse across the street was not open to the public yet and so I found myself in the local pharmacy with my teenage son as I looked for a postcard to send to my mother.
Sumner, Mississippi, is not a place you’re going to find a postcard but I knew I had to try. If nothing else, it would get me out of the hot, muggy summer-haze that enveloped the small town where the trial for Emmett Till’s murder took place.
It doesn’t take much to spot someone from out of town when practically everyone is. The pharmacist was an old-timer. He was born and raised in Sumner. He asked if he could help us. I told him what we were looking for but he said they didn’t have any as he beckoned us to the counter with an accent that dripped like the sweat still rolling off of my son’s brow, “Now, where are y’all from?”
I have lived in Utah for nearly 20 years but I wasn’t interested in starting a holy war in Mississippi and, besides, he asked where I was from not where I live.
“We’re from Virginia,” I offered.
“Have you ever been to the Delta before?” he pressed.
I know better than to pick a fight in one of the bastions of racial hatred. Things were so bad during the Civil Rights Movement that even my mother, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, was not allowed to go into the Delta. Today, things are only marginally better. Perhaps it was the heat or maybe it’s an inherited trait but I couldn’t resist, “My son hasn’t been to the Delta before but I was here a few years ago, visiting my mother’s cell on death row.”
The shock on his face said it before the words even came out, “Come again?”
I knew I had him. I nonchalantly throw out a bit of history, “Oh, my mother was one of the Freedom Riders.”
The very next words out of his mouth were ones bred into him for generations. They reflect the false narrative of an honorable heritage - ancestors who defended freedom from an invading army. It was not what I was expecting, “Well, what do you think of the Confederate Flag?”
I poked the bear again, “We’re the only country that flies the flag of the loser.”
My reply set off a tirade of well worn Southern defense of slavery and the Confederate flag. He pointed to a portrait of General Robert E. Lee and expounded on his virtues of defending state rights.
"Your family history is not a buffet of selective memory."
Just then, an elderly African American lady walked in just as he leaned on the fact that slavery was under the American flag longer than the Confederate flag. She never said a word. No eye contact. She placed her money on the counter and he gave her the medicine she needed without ever missing a beat. She was as invisible to him then as she probably was back in the 1960s.
I politely listened and then finished our conversation with one more jab, “Today we live in the UNITED states and we’re trying to form a more perfect UNION but we’re not there yet.” And yes, I did overly emphasize those two words for dramatic effect.
Not to be outdone and show there were no hard feelings, he handed me his business card and said, “Now don’t go throwing this away.” I promised him I wouldn’t. Today, it sits next do some important Emmett Till artifacts in my office. A reminder of the attitudes and beliefs that lead to his brutal killing.
I’ve heard people repeatedly say, “It’s about heritage, not hate.” But, in all actuality, it’s a heritage of hate. I love the South. I’m a Southerner but your family history is not a buffet of selective memory. There are great things about the South but Slavery and Jim Crow aren’t it.
"It doesn’t matter how you try and package it the Confederate flag will always be racist."
Former Governor Nikki Haley recently said that Dylan Roof, who murdered nine African Americans in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC in 2015, said he “hijacked everything people thought of [the Confederate flag]” and people saw it as “service, sacrifice and heritage.”
There’s a lot that is problematic with her statement. First, who are these “people” she keeps referring to? I can’t imagine she’s talking about African Americans. Obviously, not everyone thought the Confederate Flag was some benign symbol. By not specifying, she makes a grand sweep that caters to white fragility. Second, you can't say it was hijacked by racists. The Confederate flag has always been a racist symbol. For those in the back who might not have heard it the first time, allow me to repeat it: The Confederate flag has always been a racist symbol.
I’m not going to get into the minutiae that what we call the Confederate flag isn’t actually the flag of the Confederate States of America. At this point, that’s just trying to qualify the racism behind the flag. It doesn’t matter how you try and package it the Confederate flag will always be racist. It was created for a country that sole existence was to maintain slavery after the United States (which was also founded on slavery… for those keeping record) made moves to end the practice of enslaving African Americans. It was written into the constitution of the Confederacy.
I once had an adult white man who works in education ask me if I really thought the Confederate flag is racist. Instead of lashing out, I decided to meet him where he was at and asked him a simple question, “What does the flag represent?”
His answer was telling. He didn’t know. Most people don’t. The indoctrination that has taken place in education over the past 100 years that the South seceded from the Union over state rights is startling. There’s also a level of laziness combined with a stronger desire to not be associated with slavery that allows white people to accept this concept.
I responded that it represents those states that left the United States and formed their own country called the Confederate States of America.
“Oh, right,” he jumped in as if I perhaps had given him a trick question.
“Why did they secede,” I asked?
He hesitated as if he knew his answer was going to be wrong. He sheepishly replied “State rights?”
“Okay. The right to do what?” It’s a question most whites don’t want to ask because deep down inside they know the right answer.
“To own people?” he gambled.
“Right. It’s called slavery.” It was now time to connect the dots, “Is slavery racist?”
He was more confident this time because there is only one right answer, “Yes”
“So, if slavery is racist then the Confederate flag must be…”
‘Racist!” he eagerly replied.
Suddenly, on the surface, it made sense.
“Correct,” I acknowledged. This exchange took place when Confederate flags were being removed from state capitol buildings including South Carolina where then-Governor Nikki Haley (prior to serving as the U.N. Ambassador in the Trump administration) proclaimed herself a champion of removing the flag because it was a racist symbol (my, how times have changed).
Next came the history lesson, “Now, understand, those flags didn’t always fly over the state capitol buildings. This was a more recent phenomenon dating back to state resistance to the federal government and the Civil Rights Movement. It was in support of segregation.”
He was nodding in understanding. Now came the next question, “If segregation is racist then the Confederate flag must be…?”
"We must educate to end hate."
Fortunately, this was an individual not overly-steeped in the type of stories my grandmother tried to instill in me of happy slaves and vast family wealth, the over glorification of antebellum plantation homes and tacky memorials. However, knowing what I know of this person, while the lesson was helpful he more than likely slipped back into that comfortable zone where he can acknowledge the racism of others but not himself or of those sacred institutions he holds up as flawless, virtuous beacons of liberty.
He thanked me and left. I have since used this example in countless presentations.
The pharmacist smiled as my son and I walked out of the pharmacy. He whispered as we reached the door, “That was the strangest conversation I’ve ever been a part of.”
Without missing a beat, I said, “Jordan, his robes are in the back.” It was at that moment I realized the old man who handed me a card with a Confederate flag on it could be making phone calls to some of his “associates”. We went to the courthouse to see where the trial of two men who lynched Emmett Till and were acquitted by an all-male, all-white jury took place and then made it safely back to Jackson long before nightfall.
I shared that experience with the Executive Director of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. He said, “You know he used to have Confederate flags for sale but after we spoke with him he took it upon himself to remove them.”
Education is key. Proper education. It does make a difference but it takes time and patience. We must educate to end hate. The messages of racism have been grilled into our society for hundreds of years. It will take just as long to root it out and while the flags might be lowered and voluntarily removed from stores the real work of deprogramming a heritage of hate has only just begun.
*Racism is a learned behavior. It’s not enough to teach our kids not to be racist. We must teach to be anti-racist. Through education, the future of racism and human rights can look different. We can empower our youth and make a difference. Set up your recurring monthly donation to the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation and help us get educational materials and curriculum into the hands of teachers and children. Click here for more details.