Faith Shaken And Restored
How I Became A Southern Heritage Activist And A Blogger
By C.W. Roden
A special thank you to my friend Jennifer for helping me to find the courage to finally tell this story.
"Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is the act." ~Deitrich Bonhoeffer
Today's post is kind of a long one but I hope y'all will stick with me on this. It's something that I have been wanting to get off my chest since I began this blog, but needed the time to put into proper words.
Have any of y'all ever found yourselves at a crossroads? Faced an incident, or situation in your lives that caused you to question the worth of something you hold to be right? Found yourself wondering, Is it all worth it?
I want to finally talk to all of y'all about an incident that occurred off a stretch of South Carolina interstate near the end of last summer that had a profound impact on everything that I have ever believed in and have fought for -- and against -- in regards to the defense of my heritage as a Confederate descendant.
The incident -- a Southern heritage violation and hate crime, which I found myself taking an active part in fighting - caused me to experience severe emotional and physical stress, and led me to seriously question the worth of everything I - and many others -- have fought for over the years. It would take several months, and a chance encounter later with one of the victims involved that would ultimately restore my faith in the struggle to preserve and defend the most recognized symbol of my Southern identity as a Confederate descendant -- the Dixie Cross (Confederate battle flag).
The incident in question would also lead in large part to the creation of the very blog you are now visiting.
In order for you to understand just how deeply the incident affected me let me first tell you the story of how I became an active supporter of Southern-Confederate historical heritage. That will be the focus of the first part of this story. The second part which I will post tomorrow will deal with the incident itself and the aftermath that led me to question my views and ultimately put into perspective and restore what I feel to be a struggle against ignorance and prejudiced mindsets.
Now some of y'all reading this blog post are already friends and family that I know, many from facebook and other social media sites who are supportive -- or at least tolerant of -- my views promoting Southern identity and heritage. However, it is for the benefit of those visitors who may someday read these words that I'll begin by explain a few details concerning some of those views, to give you a better understanding of where I am coming from, and why the incident affected me so deeply.
My Southern & Confederate Historical Heritage
To start with, I am a proud supporter of Southern identity and heritage. Let me explain to you exactly what that means to me.
Southern heritage -- as I define it -- encompasses a vast amount of the history and cultural identity concerning the various peoples that live in the American southland today. Some people have a particularly narrow view of that heritage -- or outright denies its legitimacy. Sadly, even some who honor it have a narrow view of what it means as well. Southern heritage itself is not restricted to any particular point in time, rather it represents a vast amount of time that predates white colonialism, or even native American claims to the land, and encompasses ancient history from prehistoric times all the way to the present day. It represents various peoples - those living today and those who came before us. It's as old as the Appalachian Mountains and the Piedmont plains themselves, made up of many cultural identities linked together into one common theme, one grand and colorful tapestry.
It is a heritage neither completely defined by either its good history, or its bad history, nor does any one group of Southern people hold a monopoly on how it should be defined -- though there are some who do feel themselves to be more Southern than most. How one chooses to define it for themselves is up to them. Or if someone who calls themselves Southern chooses to reject aspects of that identity -- a concept that I personally regard the same as claiming to love the beautiful colors of that grand tapestry and being colorblind -- well that too is up to them, and a right I would support and defend.
What someone do not have the right to do is force their own definition of that identity onto others, or to mock and falsely label those who choose to embrace a view of that heritage that does not suit any political or social agenda.
I also consider myself a proud descendant of a Confederate soldier, and unashamed to say that. That aspect of my Southern heritage began with me, as it does for all others who honor it -- with the graves of the honored Confederate dead. In my case, it began with the graves of 56 Unknown Confederate soldiers buried in Evergreen Cemetery in downtown Chester, SC.
It was May of 1993, and I was a month away from my 16th birthday. I was visiting the cemetery with my family to clean headstones of a couple family members buried there. Close to the graves was the section where four rows of simple markers, all but two of which were labeled "Unknown CSA".
The graves are marked Unknown because most of them died at the nearby railroad depot, or in transit, during the closing months of the War in 1865 and hastily buried with wooden markers. Many of those markers were later destroyed by Union occupiers for firewood. The graves were all marked and names recorded, but a fire at the Chester City Hall a few decades later destroyed these records. The current granite markers at the site were placed there by the Walker-Gaston Camp #86 Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1994 -- a year later. The names of those dead Southern men are lost to history -- though to this day, the Sons of Confederate Veterans continue to search for documentation that can tell who the soldiers in those graves were. So far only one name was found and a stone placed in that man's honor a few years ago.
The other two marked graves (because both had granite markers at the time of their burial) belonged to an aged Confederate veteran who was buried with his comrades decades following the end of the War Between The States, and a 20 year old Union soldier from Maine who died of fever in late 1865 during the federal occupation. The latter grave had a new US flag placed on it, and a new wreath of flowers in honor of US Veterans Day of that year 1993.
I thought about the other graves, the men and boys buried there. Fathers. Brothers. Sons. All of them lost to their families who must have loved them. Their bodies laying there without some sort of token of respect.
I just didn't feel in my heart that it was right and it kept coming back to my mind. So I resolved to correct this oversight.
During that summer of 1993, one of the ways I had to make pocket money was to ride my bicycle along the roads around town and pick up aluminum cans, which I would later bag and take to the nearly recycling center. Two weeks of collecting, along with twenty dollars given to me by relatives earned me enough to purchase sixty Confederate (Dixie Cross) battle flags and some white flowers that I placed on each grave the afternoon of July 1st.
I had three battle flags left over -- one of which I placed at the base of the Confederate soldiers' monument near the center of downtown Chester. That flag would stay there till after the 4th of July before someone removed it. The other flags at the graves remained where they were till the end of December where they were sun-worn and tattered from wind and weather.
Over the years I would get a set of battle flags (as well as a 35 Star US flag for the Union soldier's grave) that I would place at the graves for the month of May (the Confederate Memorial Day state holiday in South Carolina is celebrated on May 10th) and then retrieve them the day after US Memorial Day, leaving one at the main marker stone in front of the Confederate section to fly all year rough. I ultimately found this to be more cost efficient, and allowed me to reuse the same flags for a decade or so.
My Defense Of The Dixie Cross And Its Southern Heritage
For the last 22 years I have been an a supporter of that heritage and proud defender of the memories of those soldiers -- particularly the sacrifice of my own great-great-grandfather, Sgt. Jackson S. Roden, Co. A, 48th Alabama Infantry Regiment, CSA, who was killed in action defending his home and family from Northern invasion at the Battle of Chickamauga, GA. (Sept. 19, 1863).
I have been a community activist, organizing memorial events for Confederate Memorial Day. I have stood for hours on end yearly at a Confederate monument -- in Confederate gray uniform -- as "honor guard" to ensure that battle flags placed in honor of those veterans were not removed before sundown. I officially joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans in September of 2001, and been an active member since. I have attended Confederate Memorial Day services in Columbia, SC every year since 2001 without fail regardless of the weather conditions.
As many of y'all also know -- and for those new to this blog who are not aware of it -- I have also been active on social media since early 2008, particularly facebook, a member of several Southern heritage and civil war fan pages. I have made many friends among other Southern heritage proponents, as well as garnered more than a number of opponents -- particularly among certain "historians" and "educators" who deemed it necessary to label me and others because we refuse to conform to their particular narrow mindsets about how the war and the men who fought it should be remembered.
A huge part of that disagreement concerns how appropriate someone feels the public display of the Dixie Cross battle flag is in modern America. Of which there are a number of widely conflicting views -- one of which led to the incident in question.
I -- and many others -- view that old battle flag and its Dixie Cross design, as an important symbol of my identity as a proud Confederate descendant, a Southern-born American, and a memorial for the Confederate dead. I don't consider it a symbol that sets Southerners, or Confederate descent apart from the rest of America, or even better than other Americas, but rather as a living symbol of a vast and diverse group of Southerners linked together by that common thread in the tapestry of Southern heritage itself.
Now by "living symbol" I mean that I consider it as much a relevant and modern symbol as I do a historical one. Not so much in honor of a nation that no longer exists except in history books, but rather as a hereditary symbol that links the modern descendants of those men and boys in gray to their ancestors and the positive values of personal honor and devotion to duty that connect the generations. Values that I honor not because they are old fashioned but because they've stood the test of time and still have meaning today.
That is not to say that all aspects of that flag's history are positive ones, far from it. I recognize the negative aspects of that history all too well, and I never allow myself to forget them, or allow others to forget them completely. I've always felt that doing so is unjust to those who were wronged, and those who feel pain associated with that flag's display today for whatever reasons.
That being said, I also feel that those negative aspects in and of themselves are not the defining aspect of that flag and the heritage it stands for, from its conception in war to the present-day. We who honor that heritage say that only those who had ancestors who served under that flag have any legitimate and moral right to define what it stands for today, and nobody else.
The opponents of that flag believe that because (in their opinion) the Confederate soldier fought for an illegal and traitorous rebel nation that's government supported the preservation of slavery, and because that flag was used wrongly as a tool by others who promoted white supremacist ideology -- many times with the blessing and support of Southerners -- that the Dixie Cross banner is an inherently tarnished banner, founded in racism and infused from its beginning in hatred. A symbol that belongs only in a museum, if not outright erased from the memory of man altogether.
On the other hand, I support the belief that regardless of what the Confederate government's goals in declaring their independence were (at least six articles of secession make that point clear enough for even a layman to understand), the Southern citizen soldier who fought in the hallowed Confederate gray and butternut uniform was not fighting for slavery -- or even had the institution of slavery in his mind -- when he fought the invading bluecoats. No in his mind was defending home, his loved ones, and the land of his birth. I don't believe he saw himself as a traitor to his conscience, or to the ideals of constitutional government as he saw them. That Dixie Cross banner was his flag, first and foremost.
I also share the belief that after it was surrendered, and then later returned by the US government, the Dixie Cross battle flag became a precious gift that he passed down to his children and grandchildren, and the generations that followed. Some showed respect and reverence to that flag, others did not and trivialized it. Others used it to show hatred for other Southerners and Americans of color, a fact that fills me with shame; but also fills me with a strong resolve to fight against further misuse of that flag as a negative symbol, and to preserve and protect those aspects of that flag's heritage that are noble for future generations.
I am always reminded of the words of Southern historian Bell I. Wiley once said in a speech at Mercer University in Macon, GA. on January 19, 1961 -- Robert E. Lee's birthday. These words were spoken at the beginning of the Civil War Centennial and near the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America:
"It is inconceivable that Lee, if he were alive today, would advocate resistance to national authority or in any way abet social turmoil or racial hatred. Certainly, he would staunchly oppose the use of the Confederate flag to cloak sordid causes and shield unworthy persons. To him the Confederate flag was a symbol of suffering, gallantry, and heroism of the highest and noblest sort. He would be infuriated by the sight of self-seeking demagogues and wrong-thinking agents of bigotry, hatred and violence wrapping themselves in this revered emblem in an effort to acquire respectability and enhance their influence."
They are words that I wholehearted agree with, and applied in my every dealing against opponents of the flag and against white supremacists in fighting this cause.
Now, I know some people would say that regardless of how brave the Confederate soldier was -- some of them would concede that the South's gray and butternut clothed warriors were among the best soldiers in American history -- the flag he fought for was as much a symbol of his government and their interests. This is true, both for good and for ill. I will never deny that, nor try to downplay the institution of slavery's role in bringing about that war. In the end though, that fact alone takes nothing away from the service of the Confederate soldier himself, nor diminishes the honor he won through his bravery, his sacrifice and his service in defense of home and family.
I believe that this is the only true way to bring justice to those wronged by the misuse of that flag, and to bring about a positive conclusion that will heal the divide between those who view that flag as a modern version of an "American swastika" and those who view it as purely a way of saying to the world: I'm Southern and I'm damn proud of it!
No true reconciliation on the issue of that flag's modern display can come if either side is unwilling to accept the whole story of that flag -- the good and the bad. The flag is not completely pure as a symbol, nor for that matter is it completely tarnished beyond redemption either. Ultimately, I believe that the positives outshine the negatives. That embracing those positives, while never forgetting the negatives and not allowing them to outshine the positives, will have a more positive effect on modern and future generations of Southern-born Americans.
This is no means an easy task, and certainly nothing that will be accomplished overnight. But with the hard work, and the effort of people of good will who honor that flag for all the right reasons, I believe that in as little as thirty to fifty years, perhaps by the time the bicentennial of that terrible war comes about, the full history of that flag will be accepted, and more importantly, the ability of wrong-thinking agents to use that noble banner to harm another human being will be irrelevant, if not completely extinct.
Today every legitimate Confederate heritage organization made up of lineal descendants of the South's soldiers firmly rejects the view of that flag as a symbol of hate and condemns all acts of hate committed by groups that wrongly misuse it. I can also say with pride that thanks to the efforts of Southern heritage defenders over the last 25 years no such act can be reported today without at least one or more good Southerners there to speak out against it.
Obviously opponents of that flag disagree and site what the limits of their political and educational backgrounds allow them to believe, that they alone hold a monopoly on the only path towards social fairness and justice. They tell us that preserving that flag is pointless, even harmful to others. They reject all offers at reconciliation and education on any terms except their own. Rejection of their views, even countering them -- which I can honestly claim I've done a number of times quite successfully -- inevitably leads to personal attacks and labels, some of which as ugly and obscene as racial slurs.
I was fully aware since day one that in this current era of political correctness displaying that flag outside the American Southland -- and often times in it unfortunately -- can be viewed by the Establishment as extremely controversial, let alone saying that you are proud to do so. I knew that fighting to protect the rights of myself and others to be taken seriously when we say we display that flag only to honor our ancestors, our Southern identity and heritage would be an uphill fight -- some would say akin to hiking up the Appalachian Mountains.
In that time I have seen lots of incidents in the media, stories about the fight to display that flag, or the meaning behind doing so. I've taken active part in much of that fight, defending monuments, flags and even occasionally grave sites from being destroyed or removed. I knew that so-called "popular culture" as its defined today labeled me and those like me to be the ones standing against "progress" rather than those fighting for a different type of progress, one that would take back a symbol that those who use it as a tool of bigotry have no moral claim to, and never allow them to use it effectively to harm another human soul again.
I knew that by standing against the tide of political correctness, I ran the risk of being labeled and marginalized for my rejection of the popular conclusions and simply consigning that flag and the memories of those who died under it to the museum; or worse to surrender it to those who would continue to redefine and display it as a means of expressing their hatred without opposition.
Yet I made the choice to do so the day I placed those flags on those graves as a youth and never looked back.
Heritage But Never Hatred
I have always stood opposed to those white supremacist ideologues who would use that flag, that symbol of my identity and my ancestor's sacrifice, as a tool to intimidate, or claim as a symbol of their own blasphemous and hateful doctrines.
I have thrown back in their faces the arguments of all those who attacked us, who mocked us and ridiculed us for speaking out against the misuse of that flag today. I told those people that their defense of how that flag is viewed as a racist symbol was itself an act of racism and moral cowardice that ultimately did nothing to end bigotry, but rather reaffirmed and legitimized the inhuman position of those who continue to misuse that flag as a tool of hate.
I have also challenged some of those on our side who honor our heritage to speak out more against racist misuse of the Dixie Cross; to remind them never to look the other way whenever someone display that flag out of hate, to never fail to speak out, least they show their own support for those obscene acts.
Obviously doing so, and holding such an uncompromising view on how to fight against attacks on that flag, Southern heritage, and racist misuse of its symbols, has not endeared me to a number of folks -- both in opposition to the flag and a few that claim to support it, but hold their own political ideologies in higher respect and give only lip-service to Southern heritage. I accept that.
It has certainly earned me the hatred of -- and several personal threats and at least one near assault from -- white supremacists who reject my views of Southern identity and Confederate heritage as someone purely Southern for all Southern people, and not as a rally point for how they twist and define "white identity."
I have even stood against white supremacists, holding that beautiful Dixie Cross in my arms in defiance, and turned my back in protest as they rallied on several occasions, letting them know to their faces that I reject them and their ideals. Most certainly, that I defy their false claim to my ancestor's flag -- to my Southern flag!
For more than 20 years I've held the same consistent view of the Dixie Cross that I held of it the day I resolved to place 56 of them on those unknown Confederate soldiers' graves. I have defended that view, spoken out against those who attacked my heritage, educated those who were willing to listen and learn, and done what I could in my own small way to fight back against ignorance and bigotry -- be if Left wing or Right wing extremism -- on this issue.
To me those actions are the right thing and I have never found myself questioning them. Though I must admit that there have been occasions where my enthusiasm and passion for this issue has given me a touch of self-righteousness in how I fight it and deal with those who oppose it. I know that this is a long fight and that the odds against success in the face of opposition that have almost every advantage -- while much better today than it was two decades ago -- are still high, I never once questioned the idea that it was right. Even if we were to lose, I know that heritage will still exist in some form and continue forward, but at least I could look in a mirror and say without regret that was fighting against hatred and ignorance in my own way.
Let me also emphasis something else that's very important. Because I know that some people who view that flag with dread have had personal experiences where they suffered at the hands of those who misused it and waved it proudly, I have never found it in my heart to feel hatred for those people for speaking against it, even if I cannot support their labeling of everyone who honors it as racist. I have certainly felt disgust and anger, but never directed at them as people, but certainly at their misplaced rage at non-racist and non-violent Southern heritage supporters and at the backward ideology that believes that simply removing the display of flags and monuments will somehow bring about a utopian ideal of brotherhood between racial identity groups -- even in a symbolic way.
Certain history bloggers have attempted to push my buttons -- and failed nearly every time -- but likewise for all their obnoxious actions and attitudes (and believe me some of them are pretty obnoxious people) I have never allowed myself to feel hatred of them. Plenty of amusement obviously at their petty attempts, but no never any personal hatred.
Even against actual white supremacists I have felt no real hatred of them as people. I feel nothing but disgust at their own scientifically flawed concept of racial identity and misplaced sense of superiority. I certainly hate their false-prophet twisting of the Christian faith to justify their claims. But hate reserved only for the ideology, never for the misguided person themselves.
Anger yes. Hatred never....or so I always told myself.
I always felt that to give into that emotion would lower me, turn me into the very thing that the opponents of our heritage label us as. The very same sort of person who would fly a Confederate battle flag in the face of another human being for their own amusement or out of desire to offend that person willingly.
I have always maintained that I was not afraid, that I would stand my ground if I ever saw an act of hate committed against another person where that flag was used as a means to attack another. That I would not falter or fail to stand up and speak out against that sort of act. Yet aside from a few token protests, and words written in blog comments and facebook posts, I'd never personally had that resolved tested. Never personally experienced such an act of hate with my own eyes.
That was, until exactly 3:18 PM EST on the afternoon of August 31, 2014, near southbound exit 75 on Interstate 77 in Rock Hill, South Carolina. That was the day that -- for the very first time in my life -- I was faced with making that choice (or failing to) and afterwards discovered that I could truly feel real hated for another human being over the misused display of a battle flag.
Until now only about half a dozen other people outside my immediate family know the story -- not counting the other individuals actually involved in the incident.
One of the reasons I have waited so long to tell this story to all of y'all is because up until just over a month ago, I was still dealing with the strong emotions the incident evoked in me. Even after coming to terms with it in a positive way, I was reluctant to tell the story, mostly because I am not the sort who goes out of his way to boast about my own actions, or toot my own horn -- this is also a reason it took me years to become a blogger. It finally took the encouragement of a dear friend of mine to finally help me find the strength to tell this story.
Since that time I've also tried to find proof that the story I am about to tell you actually happened, but aside from some tire marks, some paint chips on my baseball bat, and a tattered stick battle flag covered in oil spots and dirt, I cannot provide any other physical evidence, or police reports, or eyewitness accounts. I was told that a friend of mine wrote out the details of the incident to the local papers, but none of them were interested in telling the story. Therefore I have to rely on your trust in my sense of honor and honesty as a heritage defender to tell you the whole truth as it happened.
I was driving home on Interstate 77 south bound from a short business trip to Pineville, North Carolina. At the time I was listening to music -- a Scottish pipe band named Albannach that I absolutely love -- and I had my driver's side window rolled down, letting the wind blow in. When summer afternoons are not so hot I tend to just shut off the air conditioning and enjoy the semi-warm breeze from the window.
I had just crossed the Catawba River bridge in the middle lane when a blue four-door Toyota passed by me in the lane to my left. I got a brief smile from the somewhat attractive young black woman in the passenger's seat. I gave a friendly smile and nod back. I noticed the car had a Clemson University bumper sticker. Being a USC Gamecock fan, I gave it the evil eye a moment, and briefly reflected on what was then the upcoming college football season.
Eventually, the Toyota got ahead of me in the same lane and I was behind them as we entered Rock Hill, South Carolina's city limits. I also noticed that the car was getting ready to turn off at the same exit I was planning to leave as well. Just as I was turning my signal on, a tan and white Ford pickup came flying out of nowhere to my right, clearly going well above the 60 MPH I was traveling. I also noticed that the moron driving was likewise cutting in front of the Toyota -- and not using a turn signal! For a brief moment I was certain there would be a wreck, and that I might be a part of it, because the Toyota did not plan to back off for the moron driving it. The Ford driver must have realized this because he quickly altered course, and ended up going into the grass briefly before righting himself. (Later I would learn that the driver of the Toyota did not even see the Ford until the driver swerved away blaring his horn.)
By this time, the Ford pulled up at the left turn lane at the end of the ramp and the Toyota on the right. I pulled up behind the Toyota, my heart going about a mile a minute over what just happened. Certainly I'd seen plenty of NASCAR wannabes on I-77 over the course of the last several years -- not to mention the unfortunate results of some mishaps -- but never any that came close to wiping me and others out. I took a long gulp of my Dr. Pepper in an effort to clear my dry throat and calm myself.
The blast of a horn made me look up. The passenger of the Ford was flipping the bird at the Toyota. Hey it was y'all's fault, assholes, was my thought. I blew my own horn at the fools and was just about to lean out the window to offer a few choice four-letter words, when I saw the hand retreat and next -- to my shock -- the contents of a cup flew out the window and splashed into the Toyota's driver window. I heard a woman shriek with surprise.
Needless to say, I was outraged. Without thinking, I opened my car door and started to step out, ready to make my presence known. In doing so I also grabbed the wooden tee ball bat that I keep behind my passenger seat to check my tire pressure. I really had no plan to use the bat, merely to brandish it in what I hoped would be a threatening manner and shout at the hooligans to get the hell out of there.
In retrospect, I never considered the idea that the two offenders in the Ford might have had a firearm, or that I was putting myself in a life-threatening situation. Certainly they seemed irate, and possibly (though I can't confirm this) intoxicated, but those thought did not occur to me. I saw a pair of bullies assaulting a female driver and my response was to try and put a stop to it. I also never occurred to me to get the license plate number of the truck. To tell the truth it happened so fast, I was operating on autopilot and completely mad.
I started to go around my open door to shot a warning, when I saw a sight that almost brought me to a complete stop. The passenger of the truck pulled out and waved a battle flag -- one of the rectangular stick flags -- right at the window of Toyota driver. This same person shouted: "F-you bitch!"
Folks, if I had been running on autopilot before, that act caused me to go into complete overdrive. It also completely pissed me the hell off.
I ran at the passenger, raised my bat and brought it down hard. I caught the flag by the stick, it got tangled and ripped out of the man's hand. Good shot? No, I missed completely. I was actually aiming for the guy's hand. But then again I was never much of an athlete and my skills at hitting anything smaller than a beach ball with a wooden bat are next to nil. Probably a good thing I hadn't since the act would have no doubt landed me in jail on an assault and battery charge. At the time all I saw was a red haze in my vision, a desire to deal out some real punishment on these punks.
The passenger pulled his hand back quickly, yelling at the top of his lungs. I kicked at the door and then swung the bat down again on the top of the hood near the window. I did no damage to the truck, instead jarred my arm from the impact -- which would go on to cause an ache in my elbow that lasted several days. Regardless, my out of nowhere assault had the desired effect. The two road-ragers, confronted by a 278 lb. guy in a Dixie Outfitters T-shirt and jeans, shouting for them to get the hell out of here hit the gas, left a couple of tire marks and drove away quickly. I had to jump aside to avoid having the back end of the truck bump me. The driver flipped me the bird...the bravest act either of them managed against someone who wasn't female and was ready to rumble.
Behind me a female voice asked, "You OK?" I turned and saw the driver, a young black woman who looked a bit anxious. The liquid that the thug threw apparently mostly hit her back driver's side window, but obviously the experience shook her. I had no breath to answer, just nodded and thumbed up.
At that point someone else got off the interstate and was honking their horn because we blocked traffic. I waved the woman in the Toyota off and she nodded and pulled out. The driver of the car behind us drove around my car, gave me a look and then took off without asking what happened. Southern hospitality in the 21st century, I thought. God help us.
I started to go to my car when I remembered the flag. It lay in the road beside one of the tire marks. The stick was broken in two. I picked up the pieces, and put it and my bat in the backseat before driving to the nearest place to park. The Toyota passengers were long gone, and so was the Ford and its pair of lowlifes. I was still catching my breath and took another swig of Dr. Pepper. I became aware of little things like the seatbelt light going off -- I'd forgotten to buckle when I got away from the intersection.
Sitting there I thought about what happened, how surreal the entire scene had been and then retrieved the broken stick and flag from the back. The flag was weather worn, frayed at the ends, and had a few oil smears on it. Apparently the guys who had it didn't take care where they laid it because they were old stains. It was looking at those stains though that I noticed something that stopped everything for me. Something that just hit me like a punch in the gut.
Written on the stick in worn black in was the inscription: To Our Honored Dead. The stick itself showed signs that it had been buried near the bottom for a length of time.
They'd stolen the flag off a grave!
I remember feeling lost at first, like nothing seemed real at that moment. Then I remember feeling the tears coming, angry ones. I could not remember the faces of the two men in detail, just a pair of young-looking grungy white males. I also remember the look of fear on the face of the young woman in the Toyota. I remember very well that first sense of true hatred for other human beings. Then I cried. I admit this without shame and without hesitation. I completely lost my composure and I sobbed like a kid.
I thought about picking up cans at sixteen just to earn the money to put similar flags on the graves of Unknown soldiers. I thought about all the stuff I've seen and experienced fighting against acts of hate through the misuse of that flag, all the times I spoke out against it over the years.
I don't remember the drive home, other than wiping my eyes a couple times and then walking in the door. I went to facebook and started to write about what happened, but I just couldn't find the words to explain at the time. The emotions that I was feeling, the jumble of thought was too much.
How could they have done it?
How any anyone steal a flag from the grave of a man or child who died in a war to defend their homes and use it to taunt someone who did them no wrong?
How can anyone possibly misuse a symbol so many suffered and died under, suffered loss of limbs and possibly their minds after seeing the ugliness of war -- men and boys who did their duty to protect their land and families and never made it home, who probably lay in unknown graves all over America -- simply to throw around ugly names and show their hatred of other people?
How can anyone possibly feel pleasure, or find amusement in such a mindless act of cruelty and live with themselves after they do it?
Where is the empathy, to simple respect for those who came before us, for those living today?
How can anyone who commits such a disrespectful at to both the living and the dead possibly justify calling themselves Southern, or American?
I am thankful to say that I still don't understand that sort of mentality even now, and pray to the Good Lord that I never do. I would never want to know what kind of twisted pleasure comes from a deliberate act of racial hatred.
Still, was this what I and others who defend that honored flag and the heritage of those men and their service have to show for all out efforts? How was it that scum like that have any sort of credibility when they misuse that flag to show their hatred of others; yet when those of us who honor that flag as a symbol of identity, of heritage, to show respect for our ancestors who wore the gray of Dixie dare to speak out against it, those who call themselves "tolerant" can continue to try and marginalize and mock those efforts to take that flag back from unworthy hands? To show their hatred and disdain of us? To tell us that we are the racists? That we care for nothing for the feelings of others, but only for our own view of the world? That we were the one without empathy?
Once the anger drained out of me, that was the moment I felt completely burned out. Drained of all emotion. Ready to simply concede. What is the point of doing the honorable and decent thing as we see it for others if apathy seems to be the new normal in America?
Obviously I didn't. Maybe because I am too stubborn, or just too set in my beliefs to really given them up. Still, for a time there, I lost my passion for the fight.
Worse, despite the fact that I did the right thing -- something the few people I talked to in depth about this issue stressed to me -- I felt as if I somehow betrayed my principles by giving into my anger and actually committing an act of violence, even one in defense of another person. Even now, I can't help but think: was that really me?
Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact I am by no means a violent person and take no joy in seeing violence committed against another person. However, despite years of advocating against violence and speaking out for reason, when faced with a situation that I only read about and had abstract knowledge of, I surrendered to the passions of the moment and committed violence.
Yet, I also know that I could not have simply stood there and watched someone being attacked and done nothing. For years I have also spoken out against looking the other way. When good people do nothing, that is when evil triumphs. When you don't act, you are acting. You are telling that person doing the wrong they have your approval, and telling the victim that they deserve it.
When those two principles conflicted, I just acted as my conscience at the time dictated. Looking back now, I would have done the same thing all over again -- though I would not have tried to break another man's hand. I would have simply snatched the flag out of his hands and then dared him to get out of the truck. I doubt he would have, bullies in my experience tend to slink off when confronted.
All the same, I hope y'all will now understand why it was so hard for me to tell this story. Even now I am uncertain I completely conveyed the depth of my feelings on the matter, but I hope I did well enough for y'all to get the gist.
Following the incident, for the next few months, I continued to fight in defense of that flag and Southern heritage on facebook and other social media sites, though I was mostly going through the motions. I had not posted anything serious, mostly quick posts and opinions. I felt I had to get back into the debate, relight that inner fire. I managed to have some good ones with a few members of the opposition on a facebook page called The Blue and the Gray -- mostly pro-Union, but otherwise not a bad group of people.
I still found myself unable to tell the story of what happened, except to a few close friends who helped put my actions into perspective. I certainly tried after the fact to find evidence of the incident, but aside from some tire marks and the flag itself, there was nothing. The witnesses in the Honda were long gone. I doubt that the guy who honked afterwards saw much, except for a fat guy with a bat picking up a flag. No help there.
A couple of times, I visited the graves at Evergreen Cemetery, once to replace the flag at the main monument in front of the graves with a new one. The flag that I took from the men in the Ford I removed from its broken stick, washed as well as I could, sewed up, and replaced on a new stick. That flag replaced another at a gravesite, restored to its original and proper purpose.
Still, I felt like something was unresolved. That I lost hope in the idea of the inevitable success of those fighting to restore the honor of that flag to the general American public. It just seemed like there was so much against that success. But the only thing that prevented me from giving up was the memory of the face of the young woman in the Toyota. The desire to continue to fight with everything I have to defeat those who would use that flag to inflict fear in another person....or at the very lease end the credibility of those who would do it.
My faith was restored about noon on December 10, 2014. The following conversation is how I best remember it. Perhaps not entirely word for word, but the gist at any rate.
I was Christmas shopping in the Pineville Mall and looking through the book titles in Barnes and Noble. Anyone who knows me knows I cannot pass a bookstore without looking through it.
I was checking out the young adult novels, looking for a good read, and just about to give up when someone nearby asked, "Excuse me, sir?" I turned and at first thought the young woman was an employee. I was waiting for her to ask if I needed help when she instead said, "Um, do you remember me?" I looked at her a moment. She was young, had to be about half my age, or a bit older and dark skinned.
I told her, "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I can't recall. Not very good with faces." I smiled. "Usually its faces that I remember but names that escape me."
She smiled a little uncertainly and said, "A couple months back I was in a car and some guys were harassing my friend and me."
That was when it hit me and I got goosebumps. "We're you the one driving?"
She shook her head but smiling, "I was in the passenger's seat."
Then I remembered the young woman who smiled when the car passed by. "Yes, I remember you."
She seemed relieved. "I thought it was you. I wanted to thank you for what you did that day. Those guys were high and I thought one of them would have come after us."
I just shook my head and told her she had no reason to thank me. I only did what anyone decent would have done. I also told her that I was not usually such a violent person, and I hope that I didn't scare her or her friend. She informed me that was not the case. Sure they were surprised, but the guys in the car scared them more. She then introduced herself to me as Dorothy* and asked me if I would like lunch in the food court on her as a token of thanks. I must admit that I didn't entirely try to talk her out of it, though I assured her that I would pay for mine, but the company was welcome.
*(I use a fictitious name here because I don't have permission to use her real name on my blog...and if that young lady happens to read this, I want her to know that I respect her sense or privacy, and hope she understands why I feel the need to share this story with everyone.)
It was over pizza and bread sticks that the two of us chatted about Christmas shopping, family, and what happened after the incident. Dorothy told me her friend Trisha (also a fictitious name for the blog post -- that and I don't really recall the name given at any rate) had been more angry than scared by the whole thing. Had I not come along, she might have gotten into a fistfight with the two road-ragers and possibly been hurt. Dorothy told me that I was a hero.
I thought about it a moment, then I shook my head. I told her I was no hero. I just did what I did to stand up for another person. Something I feel anyone would have done -- okay maybe they wouldn't have gone berserker with a tee ball bat, but still...
Dorothy also told me something else. She said her friend noticed that I wore a shirt with the Dixie Cross battle flag on it. The Dixie Outfitter t-shirt I wore that day at the end of August has a replica battle flag on the back with the caption: "260,000 Southern Men, Women and Children Died For This Flag." She asked me about it. I told her I was a supporter of that flag, told her about the graves I care for, about my work with the SCV and other groups to educate people about the flag and the men who fought under it, about the preservation of monuments and graves.
I also found myself telling her how I reacted when I saw that the flag the two men in the truck used against them was taken from a grave, and I ended by telling her how very sorry I was that the two of them had to endure that. I felt those damn tears coming again, but managed to wipe away the first misty ones. (Folk's I admit I can be a bit emotional, especially over certain animated movies. Pixar -- forget it. I always have a tissue handy.)
The young woman looked at me when I told her all this intently. I wondered what she was thinking. When she saw me wipe my eyes, she blinked and seemed to be thinking about something too. Then she reached over, took my hand and told me something I will never forget: "Sir, I can see how that bothered you, and I'm really sorry you went though that too."
My friends, that was probably, the single most profound moment I have ever experience since the day I thought about those Unknown graves and no flags on them, and decided I would stand for my Confederate heritage.
Me and Dorothy chatted a bit more, I then thanked her for the company, we said our goodbyes and then I went back to Christmas shopping with a bit better outlook on life. That young woman and her words of understanding was probably the best example of why I keep fighting on. That she took the time to listen, to understand why what happened affected me just as much as the rest of it affected her and her friend. It wasn't the only example where I have sat down with someone and explained why I honor that flag and that aspect of my Southern heritage, that I've done about a hundred times in the last 20 years. But it was the one time where an incident affected me and another on a personal level.
It was also one of the main reasons that a week later I posted my very first blog post here at Southern Fried Common Sense. Though this blog is not specifically about the fight over the Dixie Cross -- in fact it's about Southern heritage in all its aspects, and about some of my other favorite topics -- I will bring up the subject from time to time, and now y'all understand why it's important for me to do so.
I will continue to fight for those flags still flying proudly at the monuments of the honored dead who carried them. I will continue to place those same flags on those monuments and graves. I will continue to speak out and speak up for anyone who honorably displays that flag properly as the living symbol of Southern identity and heritage. I will keep moving forward, and so will every other defender of that flag and Southern heritage and Confederate identity.
In my hands, the Dixie Cross will never be used in anger against another human being, and I will continue to work for and pray for the day that flag will never have the power to inflict fear in the wrong hands. Till that day, I will continue to speak out against the misuse and wrongful labeling of people who honor that flag. I will continue to set a positive example....although hopefully in the future I won't need to use a wooden bat to do it.
In my hands, the Dixie Cross will never be used in anger against another human being, and I will continue to work for and pray for the day that flag will never have the power to inflict fear in the wrong hands. Till that day, I will continue to speak out against the misuse and wrongful labeling of people who honor that flag. I will continue to set a positive example....although hopefully in the future I won't need to use a wooden bat to do it.
Still, it does remains a good back up -- just in case.