I’m trying to take it all in, trying to find some neat and orderly way to put in perspective what’s happening and predict an outcome in both the short and long term that seems attainable and moves us — Americans — forward. And I’m flailing, punching blind, not able to see a path beyond the conflict.
Amidst all this, I’m thinking about my own heritage, my “Southern-ness?” My roots are working class. My grandfather spent his entire working life at the J.P. Stevens textile mill in Cheraw, S.C., and most of my father’s brothers and sisters never worked anywhere else except in those mills around the Pee Dee River region. My paternal aunts and uncles and their families hunted, fished, kept pigs and chickens, and grew a significant portion of their own food. Mom’s side were immigrants from Hungary and Ireland. As a pre-teen, my mom, her sister, and my grandparents were tenant farmers in Pollocksville, N.C.
So here I sit before sunrise, writing, thinking, a 60-year-old white man always proud of being from the South, who never considered that some might say my blood lineage tied me to the sins of slavery. My Southern pride emanates from a rebellious, independent spirit that mistrusts authority while searching for truths worth holding on to. It certainly doesn’t spring from the actions of a few Confederate ancestors.
At least three generations on my mom’s side — her, my grandparents and great grandparents — and likely as many as five or six generations on my father’s side spent their lives in the rural South both before and after the Civil War, during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era. Did they benefit from slavery or the institutional racism? Hell, I don’t know, none of them ever got rich or got into politics. Did they participate in racist crimes against Blacks or condone as much? That’s something I won’t ever know.
The Black Lives Matter movement is at the forefront of this new conversation, pushing boundaries, demanding to be heard. We all know from where this movement sprang, from innocent Black people being killed by cops and vigilantes. It has grown to support all kinds of structural societal changes in the way we treat minorities and the way our culture views its own history. Here in Western North Carolina that movement has been met with sizeable counter protests who say all lives matter amid claims that the BLM movement is led by outsiders, that it supports violent riots in large cities, and that it wants to push the country toward Marxism, socialism and communism.
If there is a commonality from those staring and shouting at each other in our streets, it’s the fear that the other side is a real threat to what they perceive to be their “America.” That kind of polarization is amped up by the echo chambers of social media, talk radio, and cable television commentators. Too many have forgotten a political truth that President Ronald Reagan reportedly told everyone who worked in the West Wing: “we don’t have enemies, we have opponents.” He refused to demonize those who believed differently. Today almost all of us routinely “hate” those on the other side of the issue instead of “disagreeing” with what they believe.
If we truly are a country that thrives on tolerance, inclusion and openness, then we must also accept that we will sometimes lose on an issue, lose an ideological debate, that something we don’t believe will be part of what shapes this country going forward. In the heat of the battle, it’s disheartening to accept that the opponent is going to prevail. When tempers cool, it gets easier. We have to embrace the process, the democratic order, or we have nothing.
Count me a proud white Southerner who doesn’t give a damn about the monuments and statues. I liken them to the golden calves — the false idols — the Hebrews turned to when Moses left them in the desert. That’s something I’d have to tell my great grandfather if I could. He was born in 1872 in South Carolina and was named Robert Lee McLeod. Somehow I don’t think that name was a coincidence.
As for the protestors and the counter protestors, I’ll say this: it’s the rule of law, the democratic process and the right to free speech that unite us. I’ve always admired the protestors, the disruptors, those who scream and shout their beliefs. We’re Americans all, so it’s our birthright to be revolutionaries. Too often, though, we forget that, in the end, we’re on the same team.