Lowering the flag; confessions of an ex-confederate

Posted August 17th, 2017 by CLMrf and filed in Year of Faith
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By Robert Fontana

I am an ex-Confederate raised in the Southern Confederacy.  True, the South did lose the war against “Northern Aggression” in 1865, but that just ended the political states that formed the Confederate States of America.  Confederate culture continued throughout the South, reinforced by Jim Crow laws and segregation until, in my judgment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (though it continues culturally in many areas).  That’s 100 years of Confederate culture thriving in the 11 states that seceded from the Union including my own home state, Louisiana.

I say am an “Ex-Confederate” because I fully identified with this Confederate culture without any awareness of how it was held together by institutionalized racism and terror against Blacks.  I grew up, like many White Southerners, lamenting the “Lost Cause,” the Confederate defeat by those “no good, lying Yankees,” yet grateful to live in the United States, and very glad that slavery was ended.  It was not until about 15 years ago that I retired my confederate flag, folded it up, and stored it away.  I did this after years of spiritual direction and soul searching that helped me unravel an ugly truth about my upbringing that became undeniable: I was bred by my Southern culture to believe in White superiority.  My parents did not intend this, my church and the Catholic schools I attended did not intend this, but the culture in which I was raised did.

How did White supremacy make its way into my consciousness?  Here’s how:  I never heard my father tell a racial joke, but I did hear both his friends and mine tell them.  I have no memory of my parents ever using the word, “Nigger;” instead they said, “the Colored woman” or “the Colored man,” but my neighbors and friends used the “N” word.  If I was doing a job and was not doing it right, it would be common for my boss to say, “That’s a nigger-rig job; do it again.”  If there was a “Colored” who did things right, it was not uncommon for someone to say, “He’s Black on the outside, but White on the inside.”  If I called a White person who was an adult by his first name, my mother would have smacked me.  It was Mr. Mike or Miss Kay.  But I could call a Colored person who was an adult by his first name.  I later learned the reason for this was because as a White boy, I was thought to be the equal of a Colored adult, but not a White adult.

The annual fall festival weekend in our small town had two parades, the Colored parade on Friday night and the White parade on Saturday.  My dad was a band director, and his band always marched in the Saturday parade.  I remember going to the Colored parade as a child.  Even then I could see that their uniforms were poor, worn, and wrinkled, very different from what my father’s band members were wearing.  We had one movie theater in our town.  Colored people had to enter through the alley; Whites went through the front door.  There was a Black Catholic grade school in my hometown that was just 2-3 miles from my home.  I never saw it.  Our Catholic school had nothing to do with the Catholic school for Colored children.

As a child, I read stories about Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in the same way that I read stories about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  They were American heroes, not simply Southern heroes.  Our family visited the Vicksburg battlefield when I was a boy.  I have a vivid memory of being in awe of a Confederate soldier who came up to speak with us.  I thought he was real.  We brought home Confederate hats, money, and swords, and came home ready to fight the war again.  Mom and Dad gave us “the Blue and the Gray” toy set for Christmas, and the Civil War was fought from after midnight Mass until four in the morning.

While on a school trip to Washington D.C. and New York City, we passed through Tennessee. There, I bought my first Confederate battle flag, one similar to the flag removed from the South Carolina statehouse.  It was…well…big, about the size of a large picture window.  I “flew” it in my room at home, and later in my dorm room in the seminary.  I had no idea that for many people it meant racism, the KKK, and White supremacy.  I flew it with the same sort of pride that I did when waving an American flag on the 4th of July.  When I was a freshman in the seminary, a Black student from Alabama came walking into my room.  There was old Dixie hanging in all its glory.  He said, “What’s that?”  I said, “Cool, huh?”  I was clueless as to what it might mean for him.

Thankfully, he and another Black student could see that I was a benign racist.  They befriended me and began to teach me about their experience of being Black in our American society and in our Catholic Church.  I went to Catholic and Baptist churches serving the Black community.  I listened to stories of prejudice and abuse.  I read books such as Black Like Me by J.H. Griffin and Why We Can’t Wait by Dr. M.L. King, Jr.  And I sought help in spiritual direction.

It took me a long time to come to see that the problem was not about racism and White supremacy in the culture; the problem was about racism and White supremacy in me.  I was bred by Southern culture to believe that Whites were superior to all people of color but especially Blacks, and I carried some of that thinking in me.  I had to admit, though I did not want to, that the Confederate flag carried that meaning as well.  The flag did not simply mean pride in the “Lost Cause” to create a new nation 150 years ago, but also prejudice and mistreatment of Blacks today.

This was driven home to me one day when I bumped into an old friend of my parents while visiting family in south Louisiana.  My brother and I had just returned from touring the Civil War battlefield at Port Hudson, Louisiana.  A significant aspect of this battle was that it was the first time that Colored soldiers were sent into combat for the Union Army.  The battle was a disastrous baptism of fire for these ill-trained soldiers, and hundreds were slaughtered by Rebel gunners.  My brother mentioned to me that this older family friend was a “Confederate general” as part of a group of Civil War re-enactors.  When I saw him, I asked him about his re-enactor’s role and then told him about our trip to Port Hudson.  This was his startling response: “We kicked the niggers then, and we will kick them again.”

I was stunned.  I saw hate in this man’s eyes and heard it in his voice.  He was not re-enacting the past, but living in the now.  I took my flag down.  That was over 15 years ago.  I am still very interested in Civil War history and still enjoy reading about Stonewall Jackson and his Valley Campaign, General Taylor and his Louisiana Tigers.  I also admit, if anyone asks, that I am a “recovering racist.”  I am very well aware of how I was raised. This awareness helps me pay attention to treating all people who are different from me with dignity and respect.   But this is not enough. I must confront the institutions and customs that are carriers of bigotry and hate, and flying the Confederate flag is such a custom.  It is past time to take it down.


Please join us for our fall retreat day – “For Freedom Christ Set us Free”  Galatians 5:1

Sunday, October 11, St. Mary-on-the-Lake Bellevue, WA,

9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Christian faith is about more than just getting to heaven.  It is about knowing an interior liberation now, a freedom from not merely sin but excessive anxiety, stress, fear, and loneliness.  At this day of prayer and study we will look at the relationship between “sanctity” and “sanity.”  Through grace, Jesus works in us to lead us to“sanctity” or holiness. Our response to Jesus through grace leads us to “sanity” or mental health. Both are fruits of the Spirit. (Gal 5:22)

 Cost:  $30 (single); $50 (couple)  Presenter:  Dr. Robert Fontana and TBA

To Register:  Send the registration fee plus your name, address, phone, and email to CLM, 7317 Bainbridge Pl SW, Apt 1, Seattle, WA 98136. You can also register on-line by going to Catholiclifeministries.org.  Look to the column on the right, scroll down to “register for an event.”