I have lived in Southwest Colorado since 1977, but I was born, raised and educated in the Deep South: Mississippi. As a white youth, I was taught to respect the efforts and motives of those who fought for the South in the War Between the States.
My great-grandfather was farmer, a Mason, a Sunday-school teacher for 40 years and a member of the state legislature. He was also a private in the 31st Mississippi Regiment and fought for the Confederacy until his unit surrendered in North Carolina in 1865. He and his wife raised six children. He was active in the temperance movement, a strong promoter of education and president of the area's Law and Order League, formed to counter lawlessness in the post-war era, including opposition to lynchings, a tragic but common occurrence in those days. I believe he was a good man.
Being eligible, I could choose to honor him by joining the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. Some prominent members include Clint Eastwood, Patrick Buchanan, Charlie Daniels and Hank Williams Jr. Even Harry Truman was a member. But I choose not to join. Why? Primarily because its symbol is the Confederate battle flag.
I strongly believe in the Bill of Rights. As a retired journalist, to me the First Amendment is and should be "first." I believe that burning the American flag is a despicable act. I believe the swastika symbolizes the worst of 20th century society. No matter. Despicable acts and symbols are protected as "free speech." I have nothing against the "rebel flag." All through my youth, I was taught to honor it as well as Old Glory. It was the informal symbol of the University of Mississippi when I studied there (but is no more). In fact, I am pictured on the cover of the 1967 Ole Miss yearbook waving a huge Rebel Flag during a football game.
There are powerful arguments on both sides on whether the flag symbolizes racism, even whether slavery led to the Civil War. Times change. Call it "political correctness" if it makes you feel better, but there are cultural sensitivities in today's society that were suppressed in years gone by. Now, I believe, it is appropriate to respect those sensitivities, whether it be an American Indian offended by a team's mascot or a black person's discomfort with public display of a flag that, regardless of one's motive, can be seen as a symbol of racism.
I respect my great-grandfather and do not question his motives. I honor him by trying to be a good man today, a good citizen who believes civility, courtesy and respect of others should prevail.
I would not seek to ban the display of the Rebel Flag nor the playing of "Dixie," but I would ask those who so vehemently defend their right to display the flag to remember the cost and the hardship our nation had to bear in that war and its aftermath even today. It was - and is - no trivial thing. Seek to heal. Respect American diversity. Why reopen wounds from so long ago?
Feeling rebellious? Create your own symbol.
Lewis McCool is a former Journal managing editor.