Is there space to celebrate what is referred to as southern heritage that does not include ignoring slavery or viewing it as ancillary to the legacy that is embraced?
Opposing sides of this closed-end question will invariably stand their ground with the intensity of a relatively unknown brigadier general fighting for the Confederacy at Bull Run in 1861 named Thomas Jackson, who would be given the name "Stonewall" after his demonstration of valor.
"Heritage not Hate" is the mantra many have embraced to distinguish their support for the southern legacy that does not include vitriol towards other groups, African Americans in particular.
For those who maintain that the preservation of slavery was not central to the Civil War, Jefferson Davis would disagree. In remarks from his farewell address to the Senate on January 21, 1861, Davis stated:
"Had the Declaration (of Independence) announced that the Negroes were free and equal, how was the prince to be arraigned for stirring up insurrection among them? And how was this to be enumerated among the high crimes which caused the colonies to sever their connection with the mother country? When our Constitution was formed, the same idea was rendered more palpable, for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men-not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so. Far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three-fifths."
And as historian James Loewen opined in a recent Washington Post op-ed, when each state left the union they made it clear that they did so because of slavery.
Moreover, the South was almost entirely a single industry economy that was made profitable by unpaid laborers. The invention of the cotton gin increased the number of plantations willing to switch from other crops to cotton, which necessitated an increase in the use of slaves.
Though the state's rights justification has risen among many in the contemporary public discourse, the overarching reason for the Civil War was slavery.
That does not suggest that everyone was specifically fighting for the preservation of slavery. But one's personal reason to fight for the Confederacy does not mitigate the primary macro reason was the economic interests of wealthy plantation owners.
In this context, the valor of many who fought for the Confederacy are part of a tragic legacy common to human history where the masses are put in the untenable position of defending the economic interest of the few.
Perhaps this is why the mostly impoverished dirt farmers in the hills of Northwest Alabama saw no compelling reason to fight the federal government, as they remained loyal to the Union.
The other piece worthy of discussion is the Confederate Flag. This is the most ardent and controversial symbol of southern heritage. An authentic examination of history cannot whitewash what the "Heritage not Hate" logo painstakingly attempts.
The flag that is brandished about today is largely a 20th century phenomenon. It was not one of the three flags chosen to represent the Confederacy (1861-1865). In fact, the Confederate Flag of today was rejected in 1861 but used by the Army of Northern Virginia under the leadership of General Robert E. Lee. In 1933, the United Daughters of the Confederacy adopted it.
There would also be more ominous suitors in the 20th century that would transform the definition of the flag.
From the Ku Klux Klan to Strom Thurmond's 1948 third party run against Harry Truman under the State's Rights Party to support of Jim Crow Segregation, the flag became the symbol of bigotry and hatred. For some black veterans returning home from WWII, it may have been the last thing they saw before being lynched in their uniforms by those who did not serve.
Those exalting southern heritage in its present form gloss over the inconveniences of history to insist hate was not the intention. Unfortunately, intent is often the false refuge to justify something that reasonable persons would otherwise abhor.
But there is definitely space in the 21st century to celebrate southern heritage. It must be conducted, however, honestly and courageously, in the same spirit of those they honor.