Those of us who have spent our life in the South have seen an astonishing social and political revolution in the last fifty years. Growing up on the docks of Portsmouth, Virginia, my first memories were of giant warships heading out into the Atlantic through the U-Boats that were right off the coast. We lived in a railroad shack without electricity or indoor plumbing in a neighborhood called Sugar Hill. Our neighbors on that side of the freight yard were all African-American, like us the sons and daughters of another time. Several of the older folks had been born in slavery.
It was a time of Jim Crow and strict segregation, and black folks were not allowed to use “white only” water fountains, and had to seat in the rear of Portsmouth’s city buses. On my way to Pinners Point School, I passed the Pinners Point Colored School. It was the way things were and none of the white people I knew questioned it. Mama taught us not to use the word “nigger,” and to refer to our black neighbors as “colored people.” In those days, that was enlightened.
But those neighbors whom I saw everyday for 19 years had an affect on me that surely shaped my personality, my principles, and my politics. When I was 21 the Civil Rights Movement was cresting and I broke away from all that I had been taught about “white superiority” and committed myself fully to the Movement. Those days of marching and singing, of marches and sit-ins, and of non-violence protest facing violent reaction are the proudest days of my life. I was shot at twice, I was sucker-punched, I had ammonia thrown in my face, and I was threatened on a daily basis. I spent many a night in jail for those sit-ins.
But we won. My beloved Southland went from “white supremacy” and Jim Crow and the bullies of bigotry to become a booming biracial culture, desegregated and economically unshackled. The South is now the Sun Belt, with the fastest growing and most dynamic economy of any region in our nation. Blacks are returning to the South in record numbers from the Great Northern Migration of the last century. They say the South has a better quality of life, better job opportunities, and yes, better race relations. Our crowning achievement was the hosting of the 1996 International Olympics in Atlanta. I was blessed to be a part of that effort, serving as a two-term Democratic Congressman from Atlanta in the run-up to that event.
In 1990, Benjamin Hooks, the president of the NAACP, made me a life member of the organization for my work on behalf of equal rights for all. In those Atlanta years I had come to befriend many of the leaders of “The Movement” such as Andrew Young, Joseph Lowery, Julian Bond, Coretta King and my Congressional colleague John Lewis. A few years ago I became a founding sponsor of the MLK Memorial on the National Mall.
But these days I have been routinely called a racist, a bigot, a narrow-minded defender of slavery, and a descendant and respecter of “traitors,” meaning those many ancestors of mine who fought for the Confederacy 150 years ago.
I take the full-scale assault on my Confederate heritage personally. Those who marched off to “fight the Yankees” in that crucible of the American experience are a part of my family. They did what they thought was exactly the right thing to do in the context of their times. They are my flesh and blood, and I will never think of them with anything less than respect for their valor and sacrifice. As far as I know, none of them owned a slave. Frankly, many of them labored in a kind of economic slavery themselves and they could not afford to buy another human soul.
There was no “Marshall Plan” for the South that Sherman and Grant had left in the aftermath of their total war against the Southern civilians and their crumbling economy. In 1865, 6 million white Southerners and 4 million newly freed black Southerners “did not have a pot to piss in.” Abe Lincoln, asked by his old friend Alexander Stephens how the freed slaves would survive said, “Well, Stephens, they will just have to root, hog or die.” That was to be true for all of the South for many decades after.
The ongoing hysteria of “cultural cleansing” that is now going on in the South after the evil and deranged massacre in Emanuel AME Church is something that I know is already endangering the 50 years of racial progress and reconciliation that we have accomplished in the Southland. There are 70 million descendants of the Confederacy, most of whom have reverence and deep affection for their Confederate forebears. When we say. “heritage, not hate” or “pride, not prejudice,” we mean it. The sanctimonious and gratuitous attacks on our ancestors are not the way to build bridges or to sit at Dr. King’s “table of brotherhood.”
We all know that race haters and white supremacists have appropriated Confederate symbols (along with the Stars and Stripes and the Christian Cross) in their perverted rituals. But those bigots are a drop in the bucket compared to the non-racist use of the St. Andrew Cross Battle Flag by the 70 million descendants of that Army, or to its use on top of the General Lee, the most beloved car in the history of entertainment. The General Lee was the real hero of the mega-hit television series “The Dukes of Hazzard,” a show that has long since become a permanent part of
Americana. I know that it was a particular favorite of rural Southern black families because that is where I live and that is what they tell me all the time. They tell me that because I am also played “Cooter” the mechanic, the guy who kept that car running great and jumping high.
It is time to stop the vilification of the South and put things in perspective and context. These sanctimonious cleansers of culture are putting 50 years of hard-won racial progress at risk for the sake of demonizing a different view of American history than their own.