The Duality of the Southern Thing
Following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, Good Shepherd’s Rector, the Rev. Morgan Allen, addressed, from a Christian perspective, racism and the propriety of Confederate memorials. Below is the sermon he preached on Sunday, August 20, 2017, annotated with endnotes.
You can listen to the sermon here.
THE DUALITY OF THE SOUTHERN THING
The Rev. Morgan S. Allen
Oh, how good and pleasant it is,
when brethren live together in unity!(i)
Our family dog is Teddy: a two-year-old Goldendoodle who, despite his price and the distance we drove to find him, is of the rare, long-haired-and-generously-shedding variety of the breed. Even so, Teddy (or “The T-Bear”) is sweet – sweet as can be! – and he is sharp as a tack. When we leave the house, we lead our dog to his large kennel in the laundry area near the back door, and, for most of his life with us, Teddy would go to his place without much trouble. However, just as he now turns his head when he hears the word “walk” – walk? – this summer, Teddy has learned to hide when either Missy or I ask, “Someone, please put up Teddy!” before we head out for an errand. Therefore, we’ve taken to speaking in code as we begin moving toward the door.
“Somebody return the eagle to the nest!”
“Michael!…Virginia! Park the car in the garage!”
“Young people, let the sword be sheathed!”
In the last couple of weeks, our code has become increasingly ridiculous, but we all still clearly understand the communication – including Teddy – who now seems capable of discerning vibe as well as language.
As you may know, I grew up in Monroe and Shreveport, Louisiana, fishing brim and chinquapin with a cane pole on Bayou DeSiard, and hunting ducks out of a twelve-foot aluminum boat, both before I was old enough to write my name. For most of my life, my idea of nirvana has been a toolbox of wrenches, an ice chest of beer, and a 1965-1972, American-made muscle car that needs my attention. More recently, about the most fun I have is bushhogging on a thirty-year-old Case International Harvester tractor, and while I like my rock-n-roll Southern fried, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with an afternoon of Johnny or Merle or Waylon.
By most any conception – including the literal definition – I am a redneck…raised by rednecks…in two cities chock full of rednecks. While I realize people use that term pejoratively, I no longer find the title offensive when thinking of myself. For a good part of my life I did, but as those contemporary prophets The Drive-By-Truckers(ii) would explain, I now acknowledge that part of my identity as parcel to the “duality of the Southern thing”…the duality of the Southern thing.(iii) I am increasingly proud to reclaim the more positive inheritances of my Deep South rearing: good manners; the sound of my grandparents’ screen door; small-engine repair; and the taste of PeGe’s minced-beef sandwiches.(iv)
Even so, my reclamation and reconciliation of these personal identity markers does not blind me to the opposing half of that “Southern thing’s” duality. Indeed, the opposite is true: in recognizing the positive, I see in clearer relief the negative elements of my history. I cannot claim that I’m expert of much, but I suspect I know as well as anyone redneck code – the Deep South’s language without words – for whether I want it or not, it is my native tongue. And, friends, let me tell you if you did not know: a man draped in a Confederate flag, carrying an assault rifle on his shoulder and a buck knife on his belt, standing beside a statue of Robert E. Lee and shouting about his heritage, is not identifying himself as a benevolent historian. He’s grieving his loss of power; he’s announcing his confusion; and he’s looking for nothing other than trouble; all in a code that is scarcely code at all.
Among the most important tasks of the Church is to tell the truth…to tell the truth in the face of the lies we tell ourselves and the lies that others ask us to believe. Fundamentally, this is Jesus’ charge in saying, “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.”(v)
That is, You who are my followers, do not make yourselves subject to their dishonesty, for, if you do, you will end up in their same, dark hole.
So, first let us speak the truth: the idea that the white supremacists who marched last weekend in Charlottesville intended to be peaceable is a lie…a dangerous, dangerous lie, for in allowing it to stand, we become complicit in its aims of division and intimidation. The media attention and mainstreaming of their racist platforms in the days since threaten our Christian hope and set our common humanity in peril, much less our American ideals.
Further, and as Jesus continues, he warns that the pursuit of purity for its own sake is a distraction, and that, instead, words and actions measure one’s righteousness. “Listen and understand,”(vi) Jesus says to the crowds, unafraid of the religious lawyers, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles…Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and…out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.”(vii)
That is, Your personal spiritual fitness means nothing – nothing! – if you injure others with your words or your actions, your silences or your inactions.
With God in Christ as our witness, then, let us reflect on our words and our actions – “things done and left undone”(viii) – and, from our Christian perspective, let us consider the question of Confederate memorials, the issue before us on every screen and page.
In a recent paper, the Director of Ole Miss’ Center for Civil War Researchix helpfully frames such a discussion, explaining, “the impulse to build monuments suggests supporters may be less than certain that future generations will accept their values…[and] Monuments…often tell us more about the people who build them than the people they intend to commemorate.”(x)
Hear that again: “Monuments…often tell us more about the people who build them than the people they intend to commemorate.”(xi)
I learned in my Eighth Grade Louisiana History class that Shreveport briefly served as the capital of the Confederacy following Robert E. Lee’s surrender in 1865. I remember feeling pride in the prestige of such a lofty legacy, though I do remember wondering about the depth of that honor when I learned of “Fort Humbug,” the fenced bluff overlooking the intersection of Stoner Avenue and Youree Drive, on the main drag to downtown.
As the story goes, rations and munitions were especially low among the Confederate troops stationed there along that Red River high ground at Fort Turnbull (as it was known at the time), so the commanding officer, General Magruder, ordered the men to cut pine trees; to char their trunks; to trim them into lengths the size of cannons; and to rest the blackened logs on the axels of their wagons. The Confederate men did as ordered and positioned the dummy cannons on the vista, presenting to all the world and the approaching Union company as a well-armed force. Upon surveying the scene, Magruder commented, “That’s not going to work…that’s a humbug.”(xii)
As it happened, the farce did work: the Union contingent retreated, and the name stuck. Today, a mock cannon of the sort the men of 1865 might have assembled rests on that bluff. While a simple tribute, the monument offers an ambivalent memorial to ingenuity and vulnerability, to foolhardiness and desperation, perhaps an appropriate reflection on the Civil War.
Downtown Shreveport hosts a different monument. Outside the Caddo Parish Courthouse a tall, stone soldier of the Confederacy leans on his musket. Around him preside four stone busts of four Confederate generals. Carved decorations – a Confederate coat of arms and a Confederate flag – adorn the rifleman’s pedestal that bears the inscription, “Lest We Forget Confederate History.”(xiii)
My Shreveport forbearers dedicated that monument on May 1, 1906.(xiv) As one indication of Southern race relations during that time – roughly two generations since Emancipation, a time when most of Shreveport’s African-Americans forty years or older would have been born in slavery – from September 22 to September 24, Atlanta suffered “The Race Riot of 1906.” For two lawless days and three nights, as many as 10,000xv white men and boys took to the streets with clubs and stones, beating and killing black men, women, and children.(xvi) When asked of his strategy to end this massacre, Atlanta’s mayor explained, “The best way to prevent a race riot depends entirely upon the cause. If your inquiry has anything to do with the present situation in Atlanta then I would say the only remedy is to remove the cause. As long as the black brutes assault our white women, just so will they be unceremoniously dealt with.”(xvii)
Notably, the Caddo Parish courthouse had not yet been built in 1906. Rather, organizers selected the monument location because upon those grounds once stood Louisiana’s Confederate capital.(xviii) The courthouse site would be chosen in 1926, and plans called for the existing monument to center the new campus. Of those years two decades later, Civil War historian Adam Goodheart explains, “In the early 1920s, America was in the grip of a huge revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Its recruits were responding partly to the growing movement for black civil rights, which had been emboldened by the millions of African-Americans who had contributed to the U.S. victory in World War 1…The original organization of white-robed Confederate veterans had lain dormant since the Reconstruction era…but the new Klan was far larger and more pervasive, claiming as many as 5 million members…
“The Confederate nostalgia embodied in the statues [erected and celebrated during those years] offered a soft-serve version of racial domination, one whose public image involved girls in white dresses laying bouquets of flowers, not men in white sheets burning crosses. The hard-liners[ – robes off, of course – ]joined [these] celebrations. So[, too,] did the moderate, pro-business boosters of the [so-called] New South…”(xix)
On college football Saturdays at LSU, we roll the cage with our live Bengal Tiger mascot outside the tunnel through which the opposing team enters the field. For many seasons, the cheerleaders would prod Mike The Tiger’s backside just before the visitors took their sideline, provoking a fierce and frightening roar that scared those running by like an older brother hiding behind the hallway door. Mike in his cage and 100,000 screaming fans intended to send a message. What messages did we in the South intend by building our contemporary courthouses where Confederate capitals once stood? What code did we speak – if we encoded that message at all – when we memorialized Confederate officers and politicians in bronze, stone, and marble, and then positioned the monuments to stand sentinel before our courts of law?
At Good Shepherd, we have recently completed a remarkable construction program, during which we have transformed two blocks of our city, one on each side of downtown. In that process, we paid attention to every detail – in fact, to details as small as the orientation of a flat-head screw’s slit on the brass push plates of those Narthex doors – because we understood and we understand that every detail of this space makes a claim about who we are and the community we aspire to be: we enlarged our foyer because we want to enhance our welcome of those who come here for comfort and inspiration; we expanded our footprint across I-35 because we believe God calls us to find new neighbors with whom to strengthen the Gospel’s witness; we raised a bell tower because we want to sound our song of hope and love and mercy; and we take good care of all we have, because we want to demonstrate our faithful Stewardship. We know the code…we know the code!…and we know just exactly how such messaging works.
So, again, of Shreveport let us tell the truth: that Confederate monument’s commendation to “never forget” has existed as a threat, a threat breathed – hot as a tiger’s roar and loud as the same – for any African-American who would enter that courthouse seeking “justice.” In its historical context, that soldier announced the supremacy of the white man who claimed power and authority his exclusive possessions.
Now, in our own moment, every day that Lee and Davis and Beauregard loom over our public squares, they speak for us…they speak for us in a code that is scarcely code at all. No matter what we might prefer these memorials to say, every day that they stand, we consent to all they have intended and therefore still declare, and, if we respond with silence, then their builders’ intimidation becomes our intimidation; their racism is our racism; and with what flows from their cold, stone hearts, we will defile ourselves.
I needed most of forty years to find the courage to confront my past honestly and to accept my Southern inheritances, their good and their ill. At times, that experience has been crucifying – and I both lived it and considered it in privilege…I can scarcely imagine that kind of reclamation and reconciliation for those who have suffered from what I so blithely benefited.
The task of such honest reflection for us as a nation promises to be infinitely more complex and difficult – there will be no easy answers, and I suggest no simple solution – yet, we as Christians can begin that deserving labor, even if only on our corners of Woodland and Windsor, because we know that the story of our God does not end on the cross…we know that the story of our God does not end on the cross. Therefore, we have strength, for we set our faith in Resurrection, even when what we experience is crucifixion – especially when what we experience is crucifixion – whether the mortal danger of suffering slavery, segregation, and suspicion, or the demanding experience of testing our most dearly held assumptions and realizing the unholy power of what we did not intend or choose…or, more grimly, what we did.
The God who raised Jesus Christ longs to be with us in this righteous struggle.
Let us pray:
O God, you made us in your image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son. Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all people would serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.