Sometime around one o’clock eastern daylight savings time this morning the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from Capitol grounds. It is action long overdue. It is tragic that it took political pressure from the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston and the death of a friend and colleague in the Senate chamber to move the legislature and governor to do what has been so sorely needed to unite the black and white communities in the state.
As a student at the University of South Carolina I was witness to the occasional protest on the steps of the Capitol building as organizations such as the NAACP tried to get the government to remove the battle flag from atop the capitol dome. In my psychology, social work, and sociology classes I listened to the pain expressed by my fellow classmates, who were every bit the “native” South Carolinian I was but were descended from slaves, when discussing what the flag meant to them. No matter what I thought about the battle flag whether it be history and heritage or hate for a large number of South Carolinians it would always be a symbol of oppression and degradation. While progress was made when the flag was moved from the dome to the Confederate memorial on the Capitol grounds, it would never be a rallying point to unite all South Carolinians; therefore, it needed to be catalogued with other mementos of a confusing past in the Confederate Relic Room and War Museum. What is displayed on the Capitol grounds as official symbols of the state’s communal life should unite not divide. The symbols we choose to tell our story should evoke a sense of community not communities with one or some being dominant over others. Symbols matter, especially symbols which have various and divisive interpretations.
An obituary from the June 26, 1930 edition of the Dillon (SC) Herald states, “Rev. J. M. Gasque, who had reached his 88th milestone in life’s journey, died at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Annie G. Bethea, at 2:15 o’clock Sunday morning… Mr. Gasque was born in Marion county on October 20th, 1842, and was the last member of a large family. He was also the last surviving member of Co. L. 82nd division of the confederate army. He volunteered for service at the beginning of the war and was taken prisoner at the fall of Fort Fisher in 1864. From there he was transferred to Elmira, N.Y., and was held for some time after the surrender because he refused to sign the oath of allegiance.”
J. M. Gasque was my great-great grandfather. He and the rest of my family suffered mightily because of the Civil War. Several sons from many different branches of the family died in battle. Honor, prestige, and social standing was lost when much of the family’s accumulated wealth got up and walked away after the ratification of the13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. (How much is a matter of debate since the oral history came from a grandmother who liked to refer to the Civil War as the “Recent Unpleasantness.”) According to my grandmother J. M. Gasque experienced aches and pains in cold weather because of frostbite from his incarceration in Elmira. He had refused to sign the oath of allegiance which would have sent him home. In spite of the personal cost of the Civil War he apparently was proud of the Confederacy and his service in the Confederate Army, and yet I never experienced a Confederate battle flag in my home or my grandmother’s. It simply was not part of who we were and are as a family.
There were other reminders and symbols of that time not so long ago. My great-great grandmother’s hope chest sat on the floor at the foot of the hand carved sleigh bed that came out of the Gasques’ house. The gouges around the lock were a constant reminder of the pillaging Union soldiers did during Sherman’s march to the sea. The picture of an old “Mamie” hanging on the wall beside the bed was there because it reminded Annie Louise Gasque Montgomery of the woman born into slavery who spent the latter years of her life raising my grandmother. Most importantly for me as a Protestant Christian and pastor there is the well worn leather pocket American Standard Version of the New Testament which belonged to the Rev. J. M. Gasque. My grandmother and my uncle presented it to me on the occasion of my ordination in 2002. The sight of it brought back a flood of memories and stories about how my great-great grandfather in a time when Protestants in the South discriminated against Catholics would often say, “I have nothing against the Catholics. If it weren’t for the nuns at Elmira I wouldn’t be alive today.” That is the heritage passed down from generation to generation in my family not one of hatred and bigotry. The hope chest and the pocket New Testament are symbols not just of what we as a family lost but also what we gained, a love and respect for our neighbor no matter who they might be.
Symbols matter. They are visual representations of our traditions and beliefs. Symbols work best when they unite instead of divide. Symbols have power when they call us to tell our stories and discuss that which unites and divides us. In the Christian tradition our symbols are simple; bread, wine, and water. They speak of grace, humility, and love. They are symbols that draw together instead of spreading apart. What does the Confederate battle flag do? If it does not unite then put it where it belongs in a museum. Thanks to you South Carolina elected officials who have done the right thing and started the process of uniting those whom you serve.
Soli Deo gloria