My family did not fight in the Civil War. My mother was a fourth generation Californian and my father was from the Crow Nation reservation in Montana. So, it came as a surprise when I moved to North Carolina and was asked, “Are you a Yankee?”
“No, I’m from California.”
“Oh, a Western Yankee!”
I was not from the South. I had moved to Raleigh in Wake County in 1981. There on the county border between Wake and Johnston counties, a billboard had just been removed, which had proclaimed, “Welcome to Johnston County, Home of the KKK!” You might think you would not see things like that today. However, when two of my friends moved to a little town next door to Charleston, they received a visitor on their doorstep. It was a friendly white man passing out flyers, inviting them to a KKK barbecue, not the neighborhood Welcome Wagon.
I experienced the black-white racial tensions in the South when I lived there for ten years as a clergyperson. Internalized racism eroded the self worth of some of my African American friends and colleagues. The injustices they suffered on a daily basis far outweighed the sexism I encountered. (Though such comparisons are rarely helpful, I felt overwhelmed by my friends’ stories at times. The dynamics of racism, sexism and homophobia are similar.) As a trauma center hospital chaplain, I heard the grief and rage, saw the victims of abuse and violence, and sat with those who wept. Systemic racism, poverty, incarceration, lack of education, poor nutrition, and minimum wage jobs or unemployment all created cycles of insurmountable problems in a whole strata of society. I felt small and powerless before such a magnitude of difficulties.
The South Carolina Senate voted today to remove the Confederate battle flag from Charleston’s Capitol grounds. One of their own senators, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, had been murdered along with eight other African American Christians at a Bible study at Emanuel African American Episcopal Church. The racist gunman had repeatedly depicted himself with the Confederate battle flag on the Internet. The senators have finally done the right thing and the harder work of reconciliation must go on.
A New York Times editorial today “The Civil War is Winding Down” on this subject reminded me of a theology class, which I took in Western North Carolina. The visiting professor from Drew University in New Jersey had taken a walk in a nearby cemetery. He returned to class very excited, “I came across a headstone which read, ‘The last Yankee soldier shot in the Civil War!'” A Southern classmate replied, “Yeah, that was 1989!” We laughed. Well, the Civil War is still winding down.