I grew up in east Arkansas, out in the Delta. And for me, just like just about anybody whose family goes back any amount of time in Arkansas, we are descendants of people who fought in the Confederacy.
Our state flag has a special commemoration, designating the blue star at the top of the white diamond for the state’s time in the Confederacy. That was put there in the 1920’s. It wasn’t by accident, it happened at the height of KKK influence in this state.
Our children see that star, some of them learn its meaning in school. And some of us don’t pay much attention. But our symbols have meaning, and it’s up to us to get it right. Sometimes symbols can mean a lot more than you or I might think.
Thankfully there was an effort in the Arkansas Legislature this month, although it fell short, to re-designate the meaning of that blue star on our flag. It would stand for the United States, our nation that we pledge allegiance to. Although we didn’t prevail that was a battle worth fighting.
I remember hearing stories from family members, talking about hating Yankees. I’m sure many of you grew up like that too. And rallying around something like the Confederacy, something so fraught with complications, I think comes about because we also grew up being told that the South is less than, that the South is inferior somehow.
And so, some people tend to wrap themselves up in the Confederacy, they take pride in a time when us Southerners fought for something. But unfortunately those boys who fought back then, faced some indoctrination, just like we do.
But there comes a time when we have to get out of that mindset, get out of that mentality that the South is less than – and what makes us not is the Confederacy. We have a lot to take pride in — we can love where we live. We can love our food. We can love our small towns and cities, we can love our people.
We can love the South. But to truly love the South, we have to shed fondness for what we were during a few short years in the 1860s.
We cannot ignore that during that time the South was fighting primarily over the right to literally own people. That’s ugly. That can’t be glossed over.
If we want to truly honor Arkansas – and ALL of its people – we must be brave. We must acknowledge our darkest moments.
As a young man there was just about nobody more proud than me of the South — and don’t get me wrong, I still am.
But I know a lot more now than I did when I was growing up.
I refuse to be proud of the parts of a history where it was okay to whip someone for not working as hard as you thought they should work. I refuse to be proud of a history where people could literally sell a child and send them downriver, never to be seen from, or heard from again. And I refuse to celebrate a past where someone could rape your daughter, because they literally owned your child.
In these arguments, we usually hear about how one side or the other is trying to erase history. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to let our history be erased or forgotten.
The struggles of our nation, of ALL of its people, is simply to great to ignore. We can not wash away the sins of the South. Nor can we celebrate the South while holding on to that which deserves no commemoration. We must acknowledge our full past, for what it really is.
We must celebrate those who struggled, we must celebrate those who fought for and who won their humanity, and the right to be seen as people on this Earth. We should not look toward those that fought to keep an entire people enslaved in perpetuity. We should look toward those that would not and could not accept such an intolerable, such an un-Godly way of life.
The South has its real heroes, they are too numerous to name, and often too far gone in the past for us to know today. But their legacy endures. Theirs is the lasting, and meaningful contribution that the South has offered the world. The Southern story to celebrate is not about an army that fought to keep slavery, it is the story of freedom against all odds.
That is the South that I honor, that is the South that I choose to be a part of. I hope you’ll join me.
I’m Michael John Gray, Chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas.”