By David Sweet
In the late 1960s the newly formed Hays CISD took in several communities at once. “Camp Ben” – home of one of the oldest, continuous Confederate reunions – sat in the heart of the district. Thus there were historical reasons for the choice of mascot for Hays High School. Students from that era say that the Rebel mascot and “Dixie” were unifying symbols for a divided population.
But times and sensibilities changed, and Confederate symbols are greater sources of offense today – or there’s less silence. Some ask how removing them ends racism. It doesn’t. It removes an offense.
When students from a predominately white high school in Texas chose a football game against a predominately Hispanic school to chant “USA, USA, USA….” it was a jab against the other school and its fans – among whom were U.S. war veterans. But the students had plausible deniability – “it was just an expression of patriotism.”
That’s somewhat analogous to “Dixie” at Hays High School – without the bratty-ness. No one can definitively tell what a crowd intends when “Dixie” rouses them to stand and clap. You could go on forever denying that you are glorifying the era of slavery. You could go on forever saying it’s merely an expression of regional or school pride. And from knowing our community, you would be mostly right! But others could go on forever suspecting that there’s a subtle racial statement. For some it will always reopen old wounds. We have plausible deniability. That’s all.
In 1996 the Southern Baptist Convention repented of its historic support for slavery and racism. Without repudiation, there is no official break with the past. The Confederacy doesn’t exist so it can’t repent of slavery. But our celebration of Confederate symbols connects us – to some extent – to ideas from long ago that were never officially repudiated.
That doesn’t mean that everything about the Confederacy should be repudiated. William Faulkner won Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for his novels depicting Southern culture, and pride in the courage of men who fought for their states in the Civil War. Take pride in your Southern roots and bravery in battle. Support a more robust federalism which the Confederacy – in part – stood for. But the symbols of the Confederacy also evoke a fierce defense of slavery. I think that celebrating symbols tied fairly directly to slavery is inappropriate today for a public school. I would rather we come to a consensus no matter how long it takes, without demonizing either side of the debate.
I’ve heard people say “Why can’t we just move on.” Maybe because we never officially did. Civil Rights laws were passed which the South mostly opposed, and then we just lived with the changes. Attitudes about race changed too. But, as a region, we haven’t said, “We were wrong; slavery and racism are evil.”
“But that’s understood! That’s obvious!” you say. It probably is – until you start playing “Dixie” in a public school setting! Then there’s room for doubt.
Some say it’s unfair to pick on Confederate symbols when our nation as a whole approved of slavery and racism for much of its history. But the connection between the American flag and slavery has not been continuous for over 150 years.
My roots are Southern, and sadly, mixed with blood. A direct descendant named Sweet ran a slave ship until it sank off the Carolinas, at which point he farmed with slaves in Florida. My grandmother’s first husband (my uncles’ father) received a full-honors KKK funeral procession down Congress Avenue after falling from the Texas Capitol dome in the 1920s. I don’t want to make a blanket statement of pride about my roots or my region’s past without distinguishing good from evil.
For Christians in every generation, the gospel keeps calling for radical allegiance to Christ above country, state, region, party, culture, etc. When I die, I’m not going to Texas. Any cause that rises above Christ in importance (or passion) is by definition, an idol. I’ve got enough idols lurking around my life already.That doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t have opinions and causes. I’ve probably written more conservative letters to the editor than most of the conservatives of Hays County combined. But I’m much more concerned about how society’s problems infect schools and diminish learning than about preserving a much-loved school fight song. I hope we all are.
David Sweet is the pastor at Hays Hills Baptist Church