The young man who allegedly shot and killed 9 black people in a Charleston, South Carolina church in June 2015, identifies as a white nationalist who posed with the Confederate flag and reportedly advocated a race war. The subsequent removal of the Confederate flag flying near the South Carolina capitol was hailed as a positive step away from the segregationist sentiment that got it flying there in the first place. (Personally, I believe only the flags of the governmental jurisdictions (local, state, and federal) should fly at any government sites. I don’t care if it’s the confederate flag, a church flag, or whatever.)
However since this last shooting I’ve seen a lot of apologetic ‘oh, the confederate flag just symbolizes Southern pride’ articles. Let’s look at Southern heritage, the use of Confederate flags, and denial surrounding these issues during my lifetime (the last half century or so).
The reason the Confederacy was formed was to continue slavery- as many of the declarations of secession before the Civil War illustrate. The entire economy of the South was built on pro-slavery (yes- an actual economic system) beliefs, and enabled by northern financial interests.
Slaves shown on a Confederate $100 bank note, 1862.
The Reasons for Secession, Civil War Trust
Ken Burns sets Confederate flag lovers straight: It’s about ‘slavery slavery slavery’, Raw Story Aug 23, 2015
Confederate Flag Designer Said It Is A Symbol Of White Supremacy – Not Southern Heritage, Politicususa.com, July 3, 2015
Gordon (a scourged slave) during his examination at the Baton Rouge Union Camp, March 1863.
After the Civil War some who were financially disenfranchised upon the collapse of the slave economy started to romanticize the Confederacy. In actuality, this heritage represented a painful life for those who were black slaves or the subsequent white and black sharecroppers . This is echoed in current attempts to deny and revise the history of the Civil War (similar to neo-Nazis revising German history).
A romanticized depiction of the pre-Civil War south, c. 1890s
A Klansman publication showing a hooded and robed man and horse carrying a confederate flag. May 1929.
[The photo above is of my grandmother, some of her siblings, and my great-grandfather picking cotton in Texas c. 1926. My grandparents never had aspersions about the good old days of the Confederacy. My grandmother was raised in a sharecropper family and only made it through the 8th grade, when she quit walking to school as she had no shoes; I never experienced her being racist. My Grandfather was raised in a lower middle class ranching family (in Indian Territory and Texas), and while he called blacks ‘nigras’ I never heard him say bad things about them or the many Mexicans in Texas. While I may not have known all of my grandparents thoughts on race, I know they would be appalled at the hate groups in the US now.]
Fast forward (past the- yes horrible- Reconstruction) to the mid 1900s and racial integration. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) start a new terror campaign against blacks, Jews, and Catholics. The Confederate flag is revived and used both by hate groups and state and local government in protest against integration and the Civil Rights Movement. When the public schools were integrated, whites put their children in segregated private schools (still common in the South- it’s really obvious in the local school bands that march in the New Orleans parades). Today the Confederate flag is used by white nationalists, neo-Confederates, the KKK and similar groups.
[My mother took the photo of this white mother removing her son from school In New Orleans after it was integrated; I was in kindergarten in town at the time. I find this photo interesting, as the mother actually looks like she might be mixed-race herself. She resembles some of my grandmother’s family; they were called ‘Black Irish’ – often a Southern euphemism for mixed race with or without some African blood- though our family claimed Cherokee ancestry. We’d already had a nasty comment from my New Orleans school about my California birth certificate- “does it say your daughter is part negro?”. (I was blond in kindergarten, this was just the school staff not liking outsiders). After that and all of the nasty and violent demonstrations in New Orleans surrounding desegregation my parents decided to move the family to California (and integrated schools there).]
Given the recent KKK/skinhead demonstrations in support of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capitol (where white men were flying the Confederate flag and mocking black people in a nearby crowd with ape noises) how much more obvious does this association of the Confederate flag with hatred against blacks need to be? Taking down a symbol of this organized hatred is just an obvious first step on the harder path of actually dealing with racism and hate in US society. How many more decades of hate speech, murders, and terror should be tolerated in the US?
To disclose- I’m a middle-aged, middle class, educated white woman who spent 50 years in California. In my opinion there is no past honoring of my ancestors (from either side of a civil war that ended 150 years ago), or historical value that could possibly over-ride the compelling arguments against the use of this flag. And it isn’t just these historical or Southern racial Confederate flag problems that I am talking about.
I’ve seen the Confederate flag used at the residence of meth-head white supremacists in California, and recently flying as the only flag at the Hot Springs, Arkansas city hall. I’ve spent most of my life (since the 1950s) watching the KKK using this flag to spread a message of hate. I had neighbors from California that moved to Florida, put a Confederate flag license plate frame on their truck, and called black people niggers. I have had whites in Florida tell me where the local ‘Nigger-town’ is, and had strangers in 3 Southern states use nigger in public conversations with me (calling me a ‘Northerner’ – even if I mostly grew up nearly 2,300 miles away from the whole mess).
I’ve seen a resurgence of racism in California too – after knowing a neighbor there for 15 years he started regularly using the term nigger after President Obama was elected. I have California in-laws that stopped relating to us when we wouldn’t join in with their Obama bashing, and they have basically disowned us for voting for him. There have certainly been many recent high profile, brutal police shootings of blacks all across the US. And unfortunately, these white hate organizations using the Confederate flag again.
Now there may truly be some people in the South who have no knowledge or understanding of this ugly racial under-current with the Confederate flag and in the Southern pride movements. And to them I say- where have you been, and why haven’t you been protecting your heritage from these monsters that want to usurp it for their own ends? They appear to be in a real state of denial about racism. Like the recent cases of leprosy caused by handling armadillos in Florida, in denying racists in your midst have you become infected by their world view?
So why am I writing about this on my Druid website? (Besides being aghast at the state of racial affairs in my country.)
For some time I have been noticing some Druids advocating that we only worship the gods of our physical ancestry. There are Pagan organizations that only admit you to their ranks if you are of the correct ancestry. We also don’t tend to see much diversity in Pagan or Druid groups. This disturbs me on many different levels.
Genotype testing is proving that racial purity is a myth, and certainly so with a group many feel drawn to – the Celts (a cultural group made up of various peoples). In the United States many of us are in reality of mixed heritage, and we use traditions and languages that were birthed in other continents. Is it wise to ignore gods that call to you from another culture or ethnic group because of some inaccurate preconceived notion about who you are? If you are of mixed race, which pantheon are you ‘supposed’ to choose? Unfortunately, many Pagans may be succumbing to political manipulation, rather than working with our lands and accepting each other as equals.
If various US Southern institutions (like state and local governments) have become influenced or controlled by racist agendas, so have some of our Pagan or Druid organizations. There are Heathen, Hellenic, or
Druid (link removed after I posted this) groups here and abroad that have been started by or influenced by fascist white supremacist elements. Their communities have spoken out against these poseurs, but it is difficult to watch this being played out. Even with these examples many of us in North America are still blind to racist provocateurs in our Druid or Pagan groups – this makes us good targets for takeovers. (Takeovers from outside do happen- I know of Pagan groups in Florida and California where Satanists made somewhat successful attempts to gain control. I don’t know why others couldn’t also infiltrate and seize control of Pagan groups.) I am concerned when there are signs of new racist attitudes making headway in our communities, especially given the general denial of racism in our culture.
I also wonder about this issue on a personal level- when a member of one of my orders makes a racist comment should I do more than just tell someone else about it? Is a Druid saying that we shouldn’t be talking about ‘other’ gods as this isn’t the heritage of most of ‘us’ just unaware of our tenets, and the Druids of mixed, African, South American, and Native American heritage that are in the same room? Are racist apologetic posts on our Facebook pages acceptable? Where is the line between inclusion, or educating your peers, and keeping them from poisoning our orders?
Racism has long been used as a tool (along with religious intolerance) to advance fascist political schemes, and it’s up to us to keep it out of our communities. We have to be aware of agitators and their presence in our groves and covens, and speak out against intolerance and hate speech. History is rife with examples of benign movements twisted to the malevolent will of others. We cannot honor the earth and the gods while allowing these provocateurs to twist us to their own designs.
I pray to my gods – from several cultures – that we are protected from the plague of racism in our faith and larger communities. May we all grow beyond fear, ignorance, and violence and into love, respect, and peace.
Southern Poverty Law Center