Integrity: Racial Justice
A Southerner or a Confederate?
Discovering the Difference
A Culture Crumbling
Growing up when I did (1950’s-1960’s) in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, I was always aware of being a Southerner. In those two decades there were signs of impending change along every road we travelled. By the end of the 1960’s, the Southern culture of the 1940’s was crumbling to dust.
After graduation I left Helena behind to make my mark in the world. But in those days, there was no escaping the seismic tremors shaking the walls of the Southern-mansion mind-set. Looking back, I understand now that I was beginning to see a difference between being a Southerner and being a Confederate. I could not have spoken those words in those days, but the thoughts were forming, like dark storm clouds gathering. Like bolts of lightning into my heart, these gathering clouds of awareness sent sudden insights into things I had seen my whole life that had somehow escaped my notice:
- shacks and shanties,
- levies and lies,
- injustice and inevitable poverty,
- profits withheld and promises withdrawn, and
- fruited fields of cotton worked by those whose lives were like barren fields, lying fallow from neglect and abuse.
Boyhood in the South
The most natural thing in the world for a boy to do in that place and time was to read about and admire the heroes of the Confederacy, General Patrick R. Cleburne, Helena hero, chief among them. After all he was from County Cork, Ireland, and he was a protestant who did not own slaves. When he settled in Helena, Arkansas became his adopted home. When war came, he fought for his home. General Lee was the greatest of all the generals on either side. General Jackson was a devout Christian who took his war-making to be God’s will. Lee and Jackson were in agreement on this. Each boy in our young society knew that someone with his name or among his ancestors had to make the same decision: home or the Union. No doubt the “Union” was a distant and indistinct prospect while home was all around, close, and precious.
We were also the sons of WW2 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. We all knew what all of our fathers did in the war. We grew up watching the old war movies on TV. When we played “army” we fought the “Japs” and the “Krauts” just like our dads had done for real. Along the way we cheered the Stars and Stripes and swallowed hard against the lump in our throats it always put there—unless we were playing “Civil War” when the same colors formed an “X.” Most of our Dads were from the South and they had fought under Old Glory in WW2, yet everywhere our culture celebrated that other flag, too.
How can one young heart celebrate freedom and oppression at the same time when stars and bars stands alongside the stars and stripes? We didn’t do it very well. We did what our generation excelled at—we compartmentalized. We could wave either banner, though for me, the feelings were not the same. Every Saturday morning on TV, one flag made glowing promises for our young lives with Superman standing in front of it announcing “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” The other banner spoke to me of shadows of the past and of something called “the lost cause.” It smelled of old profane uncles with tobacco juice in the corners of their mouths. One had pride and honor and the other had shame and guilt. Many of us could sense that one was right and the other was wrong. Some of us used all our mental powers to justify the wrong one—
- states’ rights,
- a second war or independence, and
- “The War Between the States.”
My 7th grade history book used that title for the chapter dealing with the War. So did our red copies of The World Book Encyclopedia. Even my young mind knew that this was wrong. One of my teachers was the sweetest old lady who would never let a vulgarity, and certainly not a profanity, escape her lips. She assured me saying “Damn Yankees” was not cussing; it was only right.
The Battles of Helena
The centennial of the Battle of Helena took place in the summer of 1963 when I was 13 years old. At the same time the civil rights struggle across the river in Mississippi was making nightly news. This convergence of the two affected me in two permanent ways:
- I acquired a deep and abiding interest in the Civil War.
- Civil Rights and the Civil War became one issue for me.
I saw the civil rights struggle as the opportunity to finish what the Civil War had started.
There was more than one Battle of Helena. Integration of Central High School, located between the towns of Helena and West Helena, happened my junior year as 10th graders came over from the all-black Eliza Miller High School. A few years later after graduating college with a music teaching degree I taught band at Central with the great N. Stanley Balch. We taught together during the second through the fifth years of desegregation in Phillips County and helped bury the evil of the separate-but-equal education myth in the public schools of my home town. I was a soldier in these battles.
My decades in the ministry of music brought me to several states including Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia. For nine years twice each year we drove from North Carolina to Arkansas, straight through Tennessee. Civil War battlefields were generously scattered through the roads my family and I traveled. My wife and kids bragged that they were better informed about the Civil War than anyone else they knew.
The battlefields are solemn places of great tragedy and pain. I can roam them for hours at a time pondering the ironies of a nation built on personal freedom fighting about personal bondage, of brother against brother, and of the tragic consequences of believing the wrong things.
My first trip to Richmond, VA brought me a moment of clarity when I suddenly knew the difference between being a Southerner and being a Confederate. In two incredible days I visited Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse and the house where Stonewall died. I stood in those places where death reigned in blood and fire and where courage was as common a thing as the summer’s grasses.
We also visited the Confederate White House and the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. My experience in these buildings was the opposite of my response to the battlefields—I wanted to get out of each of them as soon as I could. One time through was more than enough for me. Why? Because as much as I love the South, I have not an ounce of affection for the Confederacy. I have only sorrow and shame for the Confederacy. This moment was a mental ratification of my heart’s abandonment of the Rebel flag and all it stands for.
One True Flag
I rejoice in the stars and stripes and the life of freedom brave men bought for me. And I will flavor that life with the righteous elements of Southern culture:
- literary creativity with a flair for the dramatic,
- the blues and gospel music and all the music and musicians they have given us,
- respect for women,
- honor for my elders,
- looking out for others, especially the young folks, and
- a brand-new, old-time religion that sets a person free.
So spare me the rebel flag and don’t mention the lost cause to me. That cause lost because it was evil and it had to die. Pass me the biscuits and gravy, the cornbread and white beans, and the sweet tea while my eyes fill up with tears when I hear “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I am a Southerner not a Confederate.
Dr. Stephen Phifer
Dr. Stephen Phifer, 71, is an author, speaker, musician, actor, and teacher. He is a retired minister of music with the Assemblies of God who loves to conduct choir and orchestra and concert band and act in local theatrical productions. He is a 1967 graduate of Central High School in Helena-West Helena, AR and holds bachelors and masters degrees in instrumental education and a doctorate in worship studies. He teaches on line for the University of Valley Forge. With two websites he writes about Christian spirituality: StevePhifer.com and PathofLifeDevotions.com.
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