Main Street was mobbed. My daughter and I dodged the milling throngs of Soda City, the weekly street festival and farmers market in our adopted hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. We strode past the food trucks and CBD oil stands and easels of palmetto-tree watercolors with our eyes fixed farther down the street, toward the State Capitol. There another kind of celebration was taking place: Confederate Memorial Day.
Up ahead on the steps were clusters of Confederate Army reenactors, some wielding period rifles. A band nearby was blowing Dixie, and an unfurled battle flag of the Confederate States of America, roughly forty by sixty feet, was draped on the steps of the gold-domed Capitol building. We stopped at the traffic light on Gervais Street, next to a group of Black protesters. When the light changed, I turned to my daughter. She had witnessed Southern iconography during her college years in Richmond, living near Monument Avenue with its oversized statues of Confederate heroes, now vanquished. But even she was shell-shocked.
“Let’s go talk to them,” I said. She nodded, then we crossed the street.
Confederate Memorial Day continues to be a legal holiday in the state of South Carolina. Observed on May 10, it marks the anniversary of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson’s death in 1863. Jackson died of pneumonia a week after his troops accidentally fired on him during the Battle of Chancellorsville, fought near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and his name and legacy continue to be honored throughout the South. There is a longstanding and complicated history in South Carolina of embracing the Lost Cause, an interpretation of the past that depicts the Confederacy’s cause in the so-called War of Northern Aggression as noble, more concerned with economics and states’ rights than the preservation of slavery. With the passage of Act 80 in 1896, South Carolina recognized two legal holidays: May 10 for Stonewall Jackson, and January 19 for the birthday of Robert E. Lee. Old traditions die hard. Even today, most state offices close on Confederate Memorial Day.
South Carolina is not alone. Every April, state offices in Mississippi and Alabama shut down for their Confederate Memorial Days. Legislators and advocates in all three states trumpet “Heritage, Not Hate.” But not everyone is enamored. Former South Carolina congressman Joe Cunningham wrote last year during an unsuccessful bid for governor, “This is another example of how our state continues to live in the past. It’s embarrassing. When I’m governor, we’re going to end Confederate Memorial Day and make Election Day a state holiday instead.”
Even in a state where 29 percent of the population is Black, far higher than the national average of 13 percent, white conservative Republicans dominate the state legislature and national political offices (in addition to Tim Scott, the only Black Republican senator in the United States). It’s hard to imagine Confederate Memorial Day disappearing, despite the efforts of grassroots campaigns in the politically blue bubbles of Columbia, Greenville, and Charleston.
It’s true that then-governor Nikki Haley removed the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds in 2015, in the aftermath of the killing of nine Black members of a Bible study group at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston by a white supremacist. She should be commended for that. But it’s also true that Gov. Haley had fiercely resisted calls to remove the flag prior to the massacre.
For those of us who have a visceral objection to Confederate Memorial Day—who are appalled at not only commemorating but celebrating an economic and social system that oppressed a race for over two centuries—how should we engage a worldview that doesn’t see the harm of such celebrations, or that embraces the mythology of the Lost Cause?
My theology requires me to recognize, first and foremost, that every human being possesses an inner light, a spark of divinity, which orients me toward hope—not an eschatological hope of a coming Kingdom of God, but hope in the moment, firmly rooted in the concrete and tangible expressions of the love, welcome, forgiveness, and inclusivity we read in the stories of Jesus’ ministry.
What then must we do?