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How should the South see its Confederate past?

As more politicians and governments call for the removal of the Confederate flag from public life, and retailers like Amazon and Walmart bar the sale of flag memorabilia, Judy Woodruff talks to Jack Hunter of Rare.us, author Isabel Wilkerson and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention about Southern legacy and confronting difficult history.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The wave of reactions to the Confederate Flag today reached into state capitols across the south. The governors of Virginia and North Carolina both called for taking the flag off special-order license plates.

    U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, should be taken out of that state’s capitol rotunda. And, in Mississippi, the speaker of the statehouse called for the removal of the Confederate emblem from the state flag.

    We use this moment to take a look at the South of today with Russell Moore, who is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Liberty Commission. Jack Hunter is a radio host and blogger in South Carolina who has used the identity the Southern Avenger. And from Atlanta is Isabel Wilkerson. She’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about Southern black migration.

    And we welcome all three of you to the program.

    Russell Moore, let me start with you.

    What role does the Confederate Flag play in the identity of the South today, do you believe?

  • RUSSELL MOORE, Southern Baptist Convention:

    Well, I think Confederate Battle Flag is a symbol that causes a great deal of division and reminds us of a really hurtful legacy and past.

    So, I think people see it in different ways. And I think what some people see in the Confederate Flag is a sense of Southern assertion that the South matters. So, for instance I was at a conference one time where the speaker, every time that he would reference saying something ignorant, would do it in a Southern accent.

    I think there are some Southerners, black and white, who feel as though the rest of the country looks down on the South as uneducated and backward. And for some people, that was a symbol of defiance against that.

    But it’s really clear that the way the Confederate Battle Flag has been used, not only initially in terms of the Confederate States of America, but in our more recent history in terms of terrorist acts against African-Americans, that this is a symbol that causes unnecessary division.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Jack Hunter, you wrote yesterday that you used to believe that it was possible to think of the Confederate Flag having — not having to do with racism, but you no longer think that’s possible. Why is that? Why have you changed?

  • JACK HUNTER, Politics Editor, Rare.us:

    Well, because it’s not possible, first of all.

    But that’s the mistake a lot of Confederate Flag defenders make, part of what Russell was saying. They say it’s about states’ right. They say it’s about heritage. They say it’s about everything you can possibly imagine that’s honorable and good and decent, while ignoring this vast history of racial terrorism, from slavery, to the Ku Klux Klan, to Jim Crow, to a deranged man walking into a church in my hometown in South Carolina and murdering nine people in cold blood for the color of their skin.

    All that is associated with the Confederate Flag. I think this is sort of a wakeup call for the nation and the South and maybe Charleston, where this all started, that that symbol does not mean to most Americans what it means to the people who admire it most. And the people who do admire it are probably smaller than ever, and the people who feel negatively toward the Confederate Flag are probably larger than ever.

    It’s time to move on. It’s time for the flag to come down, because it just doesn’t represent who we are as a people, as Americans anymore.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Isabel Wilkerson, I wouldn’t of course ask you to speak for all African-Americans in the South, but how have you, your family members, people close to you, how have you looked upon the Confederate symbol?

  • ISABEL WILKERSON, Author, “The Warmth of Other Suns:

    The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”: Well, as your other guest has indicated, it’s a symbol of subjugation, it’s a symbol of pain and terror for generations.

    I think many people in our country, we don’t think about how long this institution was in place. It was in place for 12 generations. I mean, imagine how many greats you would have to aid to grandparent in order to cover that many families, generation after generation.

    And so this is something that African-Americans are still dealing with to this day. When you think about just the very basic effort to try to trace one’s genealogy, you come to a stop as an African-American in this country for most African-Americans when it comes to enslavement. And that’s how African-Americans still deal with this to this day.

    This is actually quite real and very personal for many people.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Russell Moore, what do you think it means if the flag is no longer going to be a prominent or even a partial symbol of the history of the South, the story of the Confederacy?

  • RUSSELL MOORE:

    Well, I don’t think that the story goes away. We have to remember our past sins, as well as our past glories, as a region and as a country.

    What I do think it means is that the South recognizes now, starting to recognize now the darkness of some of that past and also the fact that the South doesn’t just include white people. Southerners — to say that one is a Southerner doesn’t simply mean that one is a white Southerner. We have great diversity in the South.

    And so we care a lot about family in the South. And I think what’s happening is not that we’re kicking anybody out of the family reunion. We’re saying that Robert E. Lee is part of our story, but so is Fannie Lou Hamer. And Stonewall Jackson is part of our story, but so is Martin Luther King. And I think that’s an important development, and one that we should encourage.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Jack Hunter, is it possible to still appreciate the history, or to have any appreciation of the history, the heritage of the role of the Confederacy, and at the same time try to have an idea that is — frankly, that honors today the role that African-Americans play in the South?

  • JACK HUNTER:

    Sure.

    And those have coexisted for a long time. The question is, what sort of a treatment should they receive that’s more respectful to the majority? Sort of coming from that background where I defended that symbol for so many years, I think it’s such a shame that people are so much more worried about being right than being decent.

    And that’s what a lot of this comes down. They want to be right. They want to make their point about what happened on a certain historical date, and you don’t understand this.

    I would, you know, tell anybody today, my fellow white Southerners who still defend that symbol, you don’t have the right to tell a black American that they don’t understand what that symbol means. It means something different to them than it means to you. And I think that’s part of the conversation we’re seeing in Charleston right now.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But you believe that’s changing?

  • JACK HUNTER:

    I do. I think it’s for the better. It won’t be overnight, but I think is — this might be a historical moment right now, what we’re seeing.

    This tragedy, if there is a silver lining — I mean, I’m from Charleston, South Carolina. I wasn’t — I was very happy, but not shocked, to see people coming together in my hometown, and I think maybe we can do that as a nation. I think we’re changing the national conversation.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Isabel Wilkerson, what do you see when you look at the South and you begin to take the Confederacy clearly as part of the history, but when you take honoring the Confederacy, you begin the take that out of the South and the picture of the South today?

  • ISABEL WILKERSON:

    Well, I think we’re at a karmic moment for the South, but for our country as a whole.

    You think about the last four years, in which, historically speaking, we have been commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union in the months leading up to the war. South Carolina was where the first shots were fired.

    And then this past week, the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church occurred on the night before Juneteenth, which is a sacred day for African-Americans, the day when the last enslaved people were set free in Texas, which was 2.5 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

    So, this history is inescapable. And it seems as if we’re coming full circle. And the history and, as it’s playing itself out, even now, seems to be inevitable.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Russell Moore, for those who say — but, as you — I think you pointed out a minute ago, what happened during the Civil War, the Confederacy is a part of Southern history. What do you say to those who say, well, I don’t want to forget that; it’s still there?

  • RUSSELL MOORE:

    Well, I think we can remember our past without valorizing parts of our past that we ought to see as wrong.

    I heard someone say that concern over the flag is sensitivity to micro-aggressions, to which my response is to say that kidnapping and enslaving people, breaking up families, terrorizing families, if that’s not a macro-aggression, I don’t know what is. And the Battle Flag symbolizes that and symbols matter.

    Remember the debate that we had several years ago about burning the American flag. Burning an American flag does something. It communicates something. And so I think we can remember our history. We have to, or else we will fall right back into the same patterns, but to do so in a way that understands that where — we come from a fallen people, all of us.

    And, as a Christian, the biggest problem with my family tree is not Jefferson Davis. It’s Adam. I believe that we’re all created in the image of God and we’re all fallen sinners. And I think we can recognize that as we look back ward in history.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Jack Hunter, how should the rest of the country look upon the South now?

  • JACK HUNTER:

    Right now, they should look at us with some optimism.

    I mean, I can’t think of a tide change on this issue, anything even remotely close it to in the last few decades. And I think that’s encouraging. I think that more Southerners than ever are understanding that this symbol doesn’t represent the country, doesn’t represent the region in the way it should.

    That doesn’t mean you can’t honor your ancestors who fought for a political battle that is important. That doesn’t mean that, but it does mean that you cannot say the symbol represents everyone. And that’s — I think people are seeing happening in the South today.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Isabel Wilkerson, the rest of the country, how should they be looking at the South right now?

  • ISABEL WILKERSON:

    I think the South is, we should remember, a vital and important part of the rest of the country. And the country looks to the South, one would hope, for hopefully answers to how to deal with this enduring, ancient question, these tensions and conflicts that have cast a cloud over us for so long.

    It would just be so wonderful if the answers could actually come from the South itself.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We thank you, all three, for joining us.

  • JACK HUNTER:

    Thank you.

  • ISABEL WILKERSON:

    Thank you.

     

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