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Leave Symbols To The “Symbol Minded”

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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The late George Carlin said, “I’ll leave symbols to the symbol minded.” I’m not sure he had the current events in South Carolina or the Confederate Flag in mind when he added that play on words to his standup act.

I have a first hand knowledge of racism. I attended college in Texas in the early 60s.

Segregated gas station restrooms, drinking fountains, drive-in movie theaters, and restaurants. I saw the first James Bond film, “Dr. No” in a segregated theater.

It was a very tough time in America if you were black. And a major part of that unrest had to do with lingering bad feelings over the Civil War.

Little Rock Train Station

A teammate and I got an offer to play college basketball in Texas so in 1961 we took a train south to visit the school before making our decision.

One of our stops was in Little Rock, Arkansas. Where just a few years earlier the 101st Airborne Troops were called in to escort black students into Central High School in Little Rock.

The students were known as the “Little Rock Nine.”

We went into a small café in the train station to grab a sandwich. After a few minutes we noticed we were the only two white people in the place.

Having followed the Little Rock story on TV we both sensed we might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were right.

When we left the restaurant we were surrounded by a group of very agitated, very white people, wanting to know, “What the hell we thought we were doing.”

 We had missed the small “Colored Only” sign partially hidden by some plants.

Luckily for us they believed our honest mistake and let us board our train. Not sure the local cops would have believed us had they decided to call them.

The Confederate Flag

I don’t remember any flying of the Confederate Flag while I attended school but I’m sure it was in the city somewhere. After all the Civil War had ended just 96 years earlier. Many current citizens at the time had grandfathers who fought in that conflict.

The football players referred to the two of us as “Yankees.” A derogatory term at first but after a time it became more respectful. Especially since we were winning more games than they were. Yet we never lost the Yankee moniker.

People in the south at that time had a very sour taste about the war and were not afraid to show it. Their plantations burned, towns burned, friends, family and relatives killed. You don’t get over that when you have grandpa there to tell the tale of living through it.

The Confederate Flag was a common symbol that even in defeat it gave southerners something to rally around and maintain their self-respect.

No one seemed upset when the “Dukes of Hazzard,”boys Bo and Luke Duke jumped into the orange Dodge Charger called the “General Lee” with the stars and bars emblazoned on the roof.

Our Own Imperfections

Those living in other parts of our nation find it hard to fathom holding respect for a symbol where one side was fighting to maintain the slavery of other human beings.

Having seen first hand Americans treated as second-class citizens simply because of the color of their skin doesn’t help rectify freedom fighters and the Confederate Flag.

America is not perfect and never will be.

Our own “Star Spangled Banner” flew over Japanese Internment camps and Guantanamo Bay.

It flew over a nation where slavery was legal for 96 years.

American troops carried it into battle against American Indians. Yet we point to it with pride while cherry picking only the good it stands for.

No one wants it removed from the roof of the White House or any public buildings. We hold our hands over our hearts during the National Anthem as a sign of respect.

We lower it to half-staff to honor our brave heroes.

Who are we to dictate to others what symbols they are allowed to respect?

Should Gettysburg be paved over? Should the Jefferson Memorial be leveled because it pays homage to a man who not only kept slaves but fathered some as well?

Should we erase Mt. Rushmore because one of the chiseled faces looked on another human being as property?

Should we have abolished the Supreme Court because of the 1850 Dred Scott decision?

Some Final Thoughts

When you’re on the outside looking in it’s very easy to point fingers. But when you grew up with it, lived it 24/7, change often comes slowly.

Should the Confederate Flag fly in the south? Why should that be my call — or yours?

Shouldn’t that be a matter for those who have to look up at it waving in the southern breeze each day?

It seems we pick and choose our particular brand of political correctness. I elevate myself, if I lower you, based on how I think you should think and feel never having lived your life. Then I move on to the next politically correct cause.

Is the Confederate Flag racist? Or is it a symbol of respect for those who died fighting for a cause they believed in at the time?

If slavery were still practiced in the south today I would oppose it. But a flag, a symbol of a bygone era — I don’t think so.

It’s the act, not the symbol, which carries the most weight in our collective intelligence. There was one phrase that I heard a lot during my time in Texas.

You might have heard it too — “The South will rise again.”

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