“I never liked that SOB,” said a prominent Stephenville citizen as he told me not to put a U.S. flag in his front yard in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He did request a flag for the other recognized flag days, though.
He did not initially realize that I was a Rotarian and that he provided a donation for the flag service that raises money for the annual Rotary Leaders of Tomorrow Banquet. This endeavor annually awards several $1,000 grants to high school seniors planning to go to college or trade school.
He did not know that I had the privilege to serve 24 years in the military where Dr. King and what he represents are revered. He did not know that Sid Miller, Texas Agriculture commissioner, messaged his social media platform audience to "get a rope" when I told the Sons of the Confederacy Veterans (SCV) that the confederate battle flags were not welcome on their float in the U.S. Veterans Day Parade. He did not know that my best friend for almost 40 years is a proud black man.
People can debate and Google-research if Confederate soldiers are recognized veterans. I'm not sure anyone can rationally argue that the Confederate battle flag is not a symbol of oppression and racism. For 100 years after the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag reinforced segregation and Jim Crow laws that poisoned our national psyche and harmed countless citizens. There has to be more to “Southern heritage and pride” than a flag used in a four-year war that attempted to retain the cheapest form of human capital, the institution of slavery.
Communities across America are starting to deny the glorification of Confederate battle flags in local parades and events. The Commandant of the Marine Corps has banned the public display of the Confederate flag that inflames feelings of division. Forget the politics; it's a simple question of right and wrong.
Two years ago, I stood on Washington Street with my family and our community to observe the Fourth of July parade. When the float with the Confederate battle flags came by, my teenage nephew from Dallas was shocked and asked me why. I gave him an apologetic "this is small, rural town Texas" answer. I did not observe the float, but watched the body and facial expressions of everyone around me and across the street. To a person young and old, the smiles and laughter vanished. A look of horror, disgust, and shame permeated the crowd.
In that moment, I decided not to allow Confederate battle flags to be glorified in a parade, if ever put in a position of authority. I do regret making the terrible mistake of not informing the SCV in advance that Confederate battle flags were not welcome in the US Veterans Day Parade. The curses levied at me that morning were partially warranted.
That morning another prominent Stephenville citizen came up to me and said, "Not in Stephenville," over and over again. She is not as old as my great-grandmother, but both grew up in a segregated America. I'll never forget as a young teenager, my great-grandmother asked me where my “little n-word friend” was because we were always together. I knew she loved him as much as I did, but she was conditioned to think that way. My kids call that man “Uncle Nathan.”
We must break the vicious cycle; symbols matter. The Confederate battle flag belongs in a museum, right next to the displays about genocide or the museums commemorating the victims of the Holocaust.
The era of slavery, oppression, and segregation are a part of the same evil human condition in history.
Always an eternal optimist, I’m a realist at the end of the day. I wish I had the confidence that this community can muster the moral courage to do what is right, and leave the ugliest part of our past behind.
Ron Henry Jr./Stephenville