As a kid in the 1970s, I liked the Confederate flag because, to me, it meant Lynyrd Skynyrd. I loved Skynyrd.
There was one negative thing that, as a kid, I associated with the Confederate flag – its use by the Ole Miss Rebels. I have always disliked Ole Miss.
I never personally associated the Confederate flag with being racist. To me it represented an idyllic, simple way of living in the rural south, with a “southern rock” soundtrack, where everybody loved their mama and Jesus (even if they didn't obey either one very often).
I was born and raised and learned to love Jesus in Southern Baptist churches. I learned all about sin; about admitting you've sinned and asking for forgiveness. Repentance is a word on which Southern Baptists put great emphasis – it meant turning away from sin and turning toward God. It wasn't some abstract, feel-good, spiritualized idea with no real-life value; it required here-and-now real-life action.
Starting with elementary school in about 1973, I attended fully integrated public schools for most of my years up through high school. I remember watching the groundbreaking television event Roots, then talking about it in our classes at school. It ingrained images in my young mind, in my young soul, that forever affected how I felt about slavery, as well as segregation, and racism. It also impressed upon me the sinful use of the Bible to justify it all as “God’s natural order of things.”
Over time, with basic history lessons (which now seem to be a thing of the past themselves), it became clear to this white middle-class suburban dweller that my southern culture has been unable to face the truth of its brutal past. We’ve tried to white-wash (pun very much intended) the sins of our heritage and pretend they no longer matter, or worse, that it really wasn’t “all that bad” for African-Americans.
However, in 1995, 150 years after it formed in support of slavery (our Baptist kin to the north had adopted the more “liberal” and “unbiblical” abolitionist views), the Southern Baptist Convention formally apologized and asked forgiveness. Since then it has taken very deliberate steps toward building a more racially diverse denomination. The SBC, which for so long stressed repentance from sin, publicly confessed its sin and repented - turned from its past and toward the direction of God’s reconciling work in this world.
Also in the late 1990s, the University of Mississippi banned the Confederate flag at its sporting events; not long after that it got rid of the white plantation-owner mascot, Colonel Reb. Just a few months ago, Mississippi’s flagship university stopped flying the Mississippi state flag because it contains the emblem of the Confederacy. The University of Mississippi has acknowledged its deeply troubling racist past, and has turned to embrace a new future.
Confession of sins and repentance, indeed.
My full name is Robert Lee Montgomery. The surname on my maternal grandfather’s side of my ancestry is Lee. Go back a few generations following my grandfather’s Lee roots, and there’s a cousin named “Light-Horse” Harry Lee. Yep - the Revolutionary War hero who later became governor of Virginia. And his son, of whom I am a distant cousin a few times removed, was Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee.
General Lee himself is oft-quoted as encouraging the South to let go of the symbols of the lost war, to “forget it,” and move forward together: "I think it wisest not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered."
I, a distant relative of the great Confederate general, teach at Mississippi State University – which is now home to the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library. The official papers and historical artifacts of the victorious Union General and post-Civil War President are right here in the state of Mississippi … which still flies the Confederate emblem every time we raise our state flag.
Southern-born and southern-bred Steve Earle recently composed a song called “Mississippi, It’s Time.” Along with Steve Earle, I lament, “I wish I was in a land that never held a soul in bondage ever.”
Yet that is our past. Acknowledge it we must. Confess it we must. Repent, we must! Let go of the past, which then loosens the hold our past sins have on us, and turn to face a new future. Confession and repentance – it’s the only way toward healing and redemption (any good Baptist knows that).
The Southern Baptist Convention. The University of Mississippi. Heck, even Skynyrd has quit using the Confederate flag as part of its logo and live performances.
This Baptist preacher agrees with Steve Earle. Mississippi, it’s time. Let’s change our flag.
Rev. Bert Montgomery pastors University Baptist Church in Starkville, lectures at Mississippi State University, and treasures his original Lynyrd Skynyrd album collection. His website is www.bertmontgomery.com. You can also hear Bert on the Faithelement Podcast.
© Bert Montgomery; February 26, 2016