Sullen gray clouds raced over the graceful, patinaed arc of the copper dome on the Capitol building. Flags snapped straight out, scoured by the light drizzle. One flag in particular stood out, one seldom seen–not in this century, anyways.
It was Confederate Flag Day, the annual gathering of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization these days divided between positions of heritage and bigotry. As people, they seemed for the most part helpful and polite, with only a wisp of concealed hostility–as when a reporter and photographer tried to enter the old House of Representatives chamber. No cameras. No tape recorders. No pads and pens. The mood probably wouldn’t have been helped had I mentioned my relative who served on the U.S.S. Monitor and later, the Kearsarge, during the famous duel with the deadly cruiser C.S.S. Alabama.
I understand why some folks feel as they do. Millions of poor folks, black and white, had nothing to do with the powerful forces steering the collision. Yet they still had to live through the destruction of Sherman’s “total war,” and later, the vengeance wreaked on that sad, shattered land by radical elements who snatched away the promise embodied by 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. They used race as a wedge to split the lower class–something that worked oh, so well. Poor whites may have had a bad time, but somehow land confiscation and disenfranchisement doesn’t equal a lynching.
The chamber echoed with boots and the clatter of old sabers as the color guard presented arms and the colors were walked to the lectern. Schizophrenia–the flags of both the Confederacy and the 50 United States. The chaplain’s voice resonated as he asked favor from Jesus Christ. He read from Romans.
The keynote speaker was columnist Sam Francis, an articulate voice for the states’ and the sovereign peoples’ power versus federal authority–a legitimate ground for questions about what this country is becoming, but territory that became off-limits because of the interweaving of states rights with the “peculiar institution.” But then Francis expounded the view that there was no call for equality from the Founding Fathers. I recalled from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I also recalled inperfectly from Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Adjust the language for a change in time and that seems as clear as it gets.
After the event, Francis and I had time to chat. We had a surprising amount of common ground about the version of the nation and Constitution that emerged from the wreckage of the Civil War. I understand the framers were torn between the dangers of centralized power and the necessity for projections of federal power in the event of need (war). They showed an eerie prescience about the results of unrestrained sovereign power outside of the hands of the people. Indeed, many of their predictions have come to pass.
Then, Francis said: “I would rather that I am in power, whites are in power, than non-whites are in power over me.” There is was–white supremacy, the real root of his beliefs.
The Civil War is a bitter, festering wound that will never be healed. Some are still glowering across that gulf, widened by time and history–a tragedy nearly as great as the war itself, if only for its persistence and irrevocability.