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On Race And Growing Up Southern

The controversy over Confederate statues is something I have thought a lot about. Perhaps unlike many, my experience has allowed my position to change over the years.

By David Thornton

I grew up in small town Georgia. I attended an elementary school that was predominantly black. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were growing up in the shadow of the Jim Crow South. I was in elementary school in the 1970s, less than a decade after the full integration of Georgia public schools.  Lester Maddox (D-Ga.), the avowed segregationist governor, was not even a distant memory.

What’s more, my classmates and I were scarcely a decade and 20 miles away from the murder of Col. Lemuel Penn, a decorated hero of WWII who happened to be black. Penn was murdered by a trio of Ku Klux Klansmen for the crime of driving through Athens, Georgia in 1964. The murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury prompting the FBI to charge the men with civil rights violations under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I can only remember two brushes with the Klan. As a high school student, a classmate showed me a Ku Klux Klan ring one day. It was like a class ring, but instead of the school name, it was engraved with the words “Ku Klux Klan.”

In the other instance, I was a college student working part-time at a local pharmacy when Klan members appeared on the town square one day. The Klansmen, dressed in white robes with no hoods, tried to hand out leaflets to anyone who would take them. Even at that point, they were such an anachronism that everyone in the store took turns driving by to gawk at them. No one seemed to be taking leaflets.

The world had changed a lot in a short time. My classmates and I scarcely thought about race. We got along fine as kids generally do. In my youth, we were aware of race, but pushed it to the background. I remember my parents telling me that I should treat everyone with respect, but that the races should not mix sexually.

I would be willing to bet that they have evolved past the intermarriage taboo now. I know I have. I care more about the content of the character of my children’s future spouses than skin color. I would prefer they have an honorable and decent mate who is black, Hispanic or Asian than what is referred to as “white trash” in the South.

My experience taught me that children have to learn hatred. They don’t come to it naturally. A proud moment for me as a father was when my own children failed to even comprehend race as a descriptive characteristic. “Why does anybody care about skin color?” they asked.

For years, I subscribed to the notion that race relations were nothing to be concerned about. No living blacks were slaves and no living whites were slave owners. If that was the case, what was there to argue about?

As I learned about civil rights history and talked to my black friends, my opinion slowly changed.

My family has been in Georgia since the early 1800s. In an undated photo, my ancestors are standing outside their cabin with a black man who is almost certainly their slave.

Several of my ancestors were Confederate soldiers. My great-grandfather was captured at the Battle of Spotsylvania and spent the rest of the war in a (damn)Yankee prison camp in Elmira, N.Y. Today, Elmira is forgotten by history, but it was a brutal place in 1864.

The mortality rate among the prisoners was 25 percent, rivalling the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Ga. But Georgia was subject to a federal naval blockade that meant that even Confederate soldiers didn’t have enough to eat. Supplies were plentiful in New York, but overcrowding, disease, inadequate protection from the New York winter and lack of food still killed thousands of prisoners. Many of those who survived were emaciated and unrecognizable when they returned home.

If I feel bitter about the treatment of my grandfather and his brothers-in-arms, none of which I never met, how much more bitter do blacks feel about slavery and Jim Crow? I can scarcely imagine.

While there are no living slaves today, Jim Crow is a recent memory. Older blacks experienced it personally. Younger blacks have heard first-hand accounts of whites-only water fountains and lunch counters, of the Freedom Riders, of lynchings, of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in which Klansmen killed four little girls, of the murders of Medgar Evers, Lemuel Penn, Martin Luther King and more.

While slavery and Jim Crow are distant history in my experience, they aren’t so far in the past for my black friends. Even black conservatives like Tim Scott (R-S.C.) have stories of prejudice and “driving while black” to tell. Racism is in retreat, Charlottesville notwithstanding, but it isn’t dead and never will be. Vestiges of racism will probably be around forever.

The world is full of longstanding ethnic problems. There is the black-white divide in America. We also have tension between Native Americans and European newcomers. In Texas, there are still hard feelings on both sides over the Alamo, Goliad, San Jacinto and the border clashes that occurred after Texas independence. In other countries, there are ethnic conflicts that have lasted for centuries between Jews and Arabs, Armenians and Turks, ethnic Russians and their subjugated countries, the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans … . The list goes on and on.

In most cases, people have dealt with these conflicts by dredging up old hurts and killing people because of it. Then the children of these victims take vengeance on the next generation of the other group in an endless cycle.

One way to avoid this vicious cycle is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Would most whites hold a grudge if their parents and grandparents had been treated as second-class citizens and had to fear for their lives if they acted as normal human beings, as Emmett Till did? You bet they would.

Would blacks and non-Southerners feel protective about Confederate memorials if their ancestors had fought and died under the Confederate banner?  Many Confederates who did not own slaves simply fought to protect their homes from the federal invaders. Sherman burned everything in his path on his march to the sea and Union soldiers committed numerous atrocities on Southerners. In 1864, for example, Union forces forcibly deported 400 civilian women from Roswell, Ga. to the North. Most of these women never returned home.

The point is that both sides have legitimate grievances. If we persist in fighting over the status of biggest victim and inflicting revenge on the other side, then the dispute will continue to fester and grow.

The ultimate answer is forgiveness. The Bible that most of us, black and white, purport to believe teaches that forgiveness heals the victim as well as the perpetrator. The Bible also teaches that race is unimportant, that we are all equal — and equally sinful — at the foot of the cross.

As to Confederate statues, I prefer to keep them, but I understand the point of view of those who oppose them. To me, the issue of statues is unimportant compared to other issues we face such as the national debt, Islamic terror, and the fundamental decay of American society. To me, the disposition of statues of should be a local issue decided by the people of the community, not outsiders with an axe to grind.

Who was more right and who was more wrong is less important than that we now live together as Americans. That’s why it distresses me when my conservative friends take the bait so easily and quickly find themselves in the moral equivalence game between leftists and neo-Nazis who claim to be working toward the president’s agenda.

Solutions to many of the world’s problems would be possible if more people would attempt to understand the point of view of the opposing side. Before making up your mind on an issue, walk a mile in their shoes.

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