Confederate items irrelevant in 21st century

Sunday, August 20, 2017

I visited my Confederate ancestors this week, sort of.

It was peaceful in Willow Mount Cemetery under the large monument honoring fallen Confederate soldiers, complete with illegible inscriptions on each side and a Confederate flag hanging limply overhead. No protestors, no Trump, just a soft summer Southern breeze and a few city workers in the distance clearing broken tree branches. And one woman, driving in my direction on Willow Mount’s narrow paths.

“Is she going to stop and say something about my being here?” I wondered. She drove on.

I reflected on the fact that I’ve seen that monument — and another much smaller one on the courthouse square — for years and never really thought about either. I had to look around the square’s inner circle to make sure there even was a “monument” — actually a plaque on a large rock slab.

Yes, I’m a proud son of the South. My ancestors have been in Bedford County since at least the 1830s; yes, one owned a slave — one lone slave — freed by the 1840s and given a substantial sum of money as a sendoff (fact: a pocket of black Melsons live in Giles and Lawrence counties; he migrated there?); and yes, at least one fought for the Confederacy (with the intriguing name of Pleasant Melson).

But I’m not proud of what they likely believed. It’s hard to understand how whites could so strongly control — or want to control — a group of people based solely on their skin color. Racists’ activities from the 1950s and 1960s are especially appalling to me. So is the fact that a mob burned Bedford County Courthouse in 1934 because they weren’t allowed to lynch a black man accused of raping a white schoolgirl.

And I’m appalled by the ignorance of those today who so openly proclaim their hate for anyone who’s “not like us — not only the racists who made asses of themselves in Charlottesville, but also those spreading false claims about Muslims allegedly “taking over” Shelbyville.

Symbols of the old South have been stolen, if you will, by today’s racists. Times in general have changed. I get that.

Years ago I had a Confederate flag front license plate on my gray and maroon ‘79 Grand Prix. Lots of Southerners had those in the late ‘70s and I never thought of it as being racist; just pride of being from the South. (Actually, the colors matched the car...) Today? I wouldn’t even consider putting a Confederate flag — we called them “rebel” flags then — on a vehicle or anything else. And I understand the deeper meaning of that flag much more than I did at age 19.

Several trucks in Shelbyville have Confederate flags mounted in their beds. I’ve wondered about what drives the owners: Southern pride or something more?

What’s made the biggest impression on white guy me is black college students complaining about statues of Confederate figures on campuses, such as the Nathan Bedford Forrest controversy at MTSU a while back. I can imagine how I’d feel as a black person seeing that statue every day.

I was also struck by comments about the paint-splattered monument in Knoxville: local officials there said they’d walked or driven by it daily and never noticed it. It’s been there since 1905.

The monuments here aren’t promoting racism or any particular Confederate leader, just honoring soldiers in general for their bravery. But I understand why some feel monuments honoring specific Civil War leaders need to come down. And if they’re offensive to one ethnic group and ignored by another, why not remove them? This isn’t 1910. Potentially offensive monuments and statues must be viewed in today’s context. History lives separately from stone monuments.

And those protesting racism are on a much higher level than the “alt-right” and their crude demands, no matter what facts-challenged President Trump says.

—T-G copy editor David Melson can be contacted at dmelson@t-g.com.