I lived in central Illinois for 15 years, where I served as senior pastor of a church in Peoria. In the early days of my ministry there, Native Americans were protesting the presence of Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois.
There were hard feelings on both sides. European Americans were hurt that Native Americans would attack their beloved Chief, who appeared in costume and mimicked Native American dances. Of course, the Chief was always a white man. They also argued that the Florida State Seminoles had an Indian as a mascot.
“He rides into the stadium on a horse in full costume, so what is wrong with the Chief Illiniwek?” The biggest difference I found was that the Seminole Nation approved, and it is one of their people who rides into the stadium for the games. What I told people in Peoria, and what I had learned, was that even when something like Chief Illiniwek is not offensive to us, we must listen to the Native Americans who are hurt by the appearance of the Chief. That is the Christian thing to do.
The Apostle Paul had no qualms eating meat offered to idols. But in I Corinthians chapter 8 he tells the church that while eating that meat is harmless to you, it may shake another’s faith and thus you are harming another person. So he told the church they’re not to eat meat offered to idols to show care for others who did not believe as they did. Sounds kind of like the prohibition of mass gatherings today in the midst of COVID-19.
I started with this story from my time in Peoria because this old white man went through the cultural learning curve there and I have done the same thing in light of the Confederate flag that was flown at the Marshall County Courthouse. I will confess that when I first heard about the flag, I fully expected it to be the “stars and bars” battle flag of the Confederacy, or at least that it would have that familiar symbol on it in some fashion. Instead, it was the “stars and bars” of the first Confederate flag used from 1861-1863, which is less familiar to many people. Upon learning which flag it was, I had a sign of relief. At least it was not the flag with the cross bar of stars used by so many racists, a comment many whites like me would be expected to make.
But then I read the letter from my state NAACP president, Marcus Ray. Ray said that while the Sons of the Confederate Veterans see the Civil War as the “Second American Revolution fought for liberty and freedom,” it was not fought for the freedom of all people, just white Southern people.
I often hear in revisionist history that “the war was not about slavery.” My response is, “You are partially right, for it was about state’s rights to have slaves.”
So, logic says it really was about slavery when all is said and done. And while the original Confederate flag is little known and seemingly not used by racists, it still represents to African-Americans the celebration of “the way things used to be” when they were slaves.
Just like I listened to Native Americans in Illinois about Chief Illiniwek, white folks like me need to be listening to blacks when any Confederate Flag is flown on government property. Black citizens are supporting the Marshall County government and must have a say about what is displayed on the property of the people. There would be no discussion about flying a Nazi flag on the county courthouse lawn by the German American Society — it just would not be allowed — because it is not about their heritage for that flag points to hate, war, and genocide for everyone who sees it.
These are the same things that Confederate flag points to for many of us today. And that includes this old white man who keeps trying to learn new things.
Bruce W. Dobyns is the branch president of the Mayfield-Graves County NAACP. He can be reached at email@example.com.