The U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, but there are many who will tell you that we're still fighting it and will find evidence of such in Jackson Baker's cover story about the current battle over General Nathan Bedford Forrest's statue and gravesite in Memphis.
But the truth is we're not really still fighting the Civil War of the 1860s; we're still fighting the "Civil Rights War" of the 1960s.
That's when all this passion for history and the "Southern way of life" really took off. That's when there was a huge surge in Confederate park-naming, Confederate hero statue-building, and Confederate flag-raisings over public buildings. The South wasn't rising again; the defense of racism was rising, under the guise of "heritage."
In 1964, as civil rights protests and marches were occurring all over the South, Memphis erected a statue of Jefferson Davis downtown. Coincidence? Sure, it was. Oddly, that same coincidence happened in all 11 former Confederate states in the 1960s, as white folks below the Mason-Dixon line rallied around the flag, so to speak, and erected dozens of new historical odes to the Confederacy on public property.
In Mississippi, Governor Ross Barnett famously said ending segregation would be to "drink from the cup of genocide," and at an Ole Miss football game in 1962 said, "I love Mississippi. I love her people, our customs. I love and respect our heritage." The crowd was a sea of waving Confederate battle flags. The following week saw riots on campus as whites attacked federal marshalls seeking to integrate the university. To protect Southern customs and heritage, of course.
There are more Civil War historical monuments in the South than monuments to all other wars in U.S. history combined. They dot the landscape like magnolias, populating our parks and city squares, persistent reminders of the ill-fated and bloody attempt to leave the United States and preserve the institution of slavery. Yes, many Confederate soldiers were brave and heroic. And yes, many Southern generals were brilliant tacticians and dashing warriors. But the cause was not noble or glorious. And we're still paying the price for it.
Still, this is a free country. No one will stop you from flying any flag you choose on your property. No one will begrudge you your right to dress up and reenact glorious — if bloodless — scenes of epic battle. If you want to put the Confederate flag on your bumper or wear it on your T-shirt, go for it. It says more about you than you think.
But if you've got a free day and you want to learn something that might alter your perspective, go down to South Main Street and visit the National Civil Rights Museum. The whole, sad, ugly, embarrassing history of Southern racism and the battle for civil rights — the marches, the freedom rides, the burned buses, the murders, the lynchings, the police dogs, the fire hoses, the lunch-counter sit-ins, the church bombings, the forced school integration, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King — is there. Go see it. Take it in. Let the ignorance and the hate and the horror wash over you.
When you walk out, maybe you won't be as eager to wave that battle flag. Maybe you'll even begin to understand why one man's glorious heritage is another man's living hell.
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."
In the 14 years I've been the Flyer editor, I've gotten lots of hate mail. It mostly used to come in envelopes filled with pages of scrawled handwriting. I read them and put them in the wastebasket, chalking it up as a natural by-product of writing for a liberal paper in the conservative South. Lately, the angry folks have switched to email, and it comes in waves ...