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June 27, 2015

In the aftermath of what has become known as the Charleston Massacre, there has been no shortage of opinions regarding the placement of the Confederate Battle Flag at a Confederate Memorial on the grounds of the State House in Columbia. In my view much of the debate has been political rhetoric “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” My personal reflections on these events, including a remarkable eulogy for the Reverend Senator Clementa C. Pinckney by President Obama, have caused me to ponder the meaning of all this for me and my family.

My prayer has been framed around two familiar passages. One attributed to St Francis of Assisi; “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” The other from a song; “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

This column is a personal reflection on the relationship between my Southern Heritage and what I hope will be my Southern Legacy. The attached picture is of me at about two-years old sitting on the knee of my great-grandfather, Robert E Lee Woodward. I submit these words with the hope that my own experience may carry a ring of truth in the lives of others.

Last week I sat with a good friend in his office. He is an avid Civil War afficionado. He has portraits of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on the wall opposite his desk. One of his relatives was a courier in General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The ancestor was one of the soldiers charged with the final responsibility of delivering documents pertaining to the terms of surrender, signed by Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

My friend and I share a sense of pride in our Southern heritage. Our conversation turned to the tragic deaths of nine people at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the previous Wednesday.

My friend said wistfully, “It looks like they’re gonna’ use this horrible act by a deranged person as a reason to take down our flag. I wish somebody would explain to me how a limp piece of cloth hanging from a flagpole could cause such a thing.”

Several months ago one of my relatives gave me a copy of a photograph that I had never before seen. It was a picture of me at about age two perched on the knee of my great-grandfather Robert E. Lee Woodward. He was my mother’s grandfather and was named for the Southern general because his father, John Ardis Woodward, served with General Lee in the Wilderness Campaign.

Zachery Taylor Hutson, another of my great-grandfathers, also fought with Robert E. Lee in the same campaign.

Major Hugh Neely, my paternal great-great-grandfather, was a portly man with red hair and a long, thick beard.  Growing up I thought that he was an officer in the Confederate Army. I fancied him as a hero of the Civil War. However, I learned later from his octogenarian grandchildren that Major was his given name, not a military rank.

During the Civil War, Major Hugh Neely taught school in Christiana, Tennessee, and served as postmaster in Fosterville, Tennessee.  He lived in a log cabin on the Shelbyville Pike.

He tried to join the Confederate Army on two occasions. He was originally denied enlistment because he was a schoolteacher. As the war wore on, he tried again to enlist.  This time he was not accepted as a soldier because of his poor vision.  He was so cross-eyed he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a shot from a rifle.

Though he was unable to shoot straight with a firearm, Major Hugh Neely had the reputation of being a straight shooter in his conversation. He would have signed on as a Confederate soldier to defend his homeland, but Major Hugh Neely opposed slavery. He is reported to have said, “No person can own another person.”

Others on my family tree held no such conviction.

Another of my great-grandfathers was Moses Sanders Haynsworth of Darlington, South Carolina. He was the first cousin of Tuck Haynsworth, a fellow Citadel cadet. Tuck Haynsworth pulled the lanyard on the artillery cannon that launched the first shot of the Civil War. He fired on the Union ship the Star of the North in the Battle of Fort Sumter, the opening engagement of the war.

During the war, the Haynsworth plantation, having five hundred slaves, was converted in order to manufacture boots and saddles for Confederate troops.

A fourth of my great-grandfathers, Thomas Oregon Lawton, fought for the Confederacy and was also a slaveholder. His daughter, my grandmother, was born fourteen years after the Civil War ended. Mammy, as I called her, was a Christian woman, but she hated one man until her dying day. William Tecumseh Sherman was, to Mammy, the devil himself. Sherman’s scorched-earth policy led his Union soldiers to set fire to the Lawton family home three different times. The house survived each time only to be destroyed by fire from lightning in 1945.

I have a strong sense of gratitude for my Southern heritage. I have appreciated the flag under which these ancestors fought. Unfortunate that flag has become so entangled with the issue of slavery that the two are inseparable. The plain truth is that my heritage has included racism.

Mammy often referred to African-Americans as darkies, a term carried over from the plantation. Even though she established a school in her family home for African-American children, cultural racism was always present.

My grandfather, Pappy, whom I adored, was even more blatant. He almost always employed the N-word for African-Americans. He enjoyed baseball, but thought that Branch Ricky and Bill Veeck had ruined the game by signing black players to their teams. When an African-American entertainer appeared on television he changed the channel or turned the TV off.

Born and reared in Spartanburg County, I remember segregated water fountains and restrooms, clearly marked WHITE and COLORED.  As a boy, I gave this glaring expression of inequality little thought. It was institutional racism, a way of life in the South.

After graduation from high school in 1962, I had an opportunity to travel to Southern Rhodesia to visit my uncle and aunt who were serving as missionaries in Africa. In the country now known as Zimbabwe, I saw something that changed my mind about human relationships. I saw apartheid at work; I saw harsh discrimination in plain view.

When I returned to South Carolina, my eyes had been opened. I could also then see the racial discrimination in the place that I loved, the place I called home.             I was cautious with this new insight, knowing instinctively that my changing opinions would not be well received. The Civil Rights Movement was spreading across the South. I had become aware, as never before, that all people are equal in the sight of God.             A young clergyman from Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the movement for racial equality. He inspired a nation to change largely through his riveting speeches. King’s skill with words powered his nonviolent battle for integration and equal rights.

In April of 1963, King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, following a peaceful protest against segregation. It was there that he wrote “The Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King’s letter declared, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King also quoted the words of the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

In spite of his noble efforts Martin Luther King was vilified by most people I knew, including my closest relatives. He was branded a troublemaker, a man who had forgotten his place.

In my father, I saw an attitude that was different from my grandparents. Dad was more accepting of people of color but firmly believed that the races should be kept separate. When public schools were integrated in Spartanburg, Dad sent his youngest child, my sister, to a private school. He felt that people should worship in their own churches, separately, black and white. His was a milder racism but racism nonetheless.

When I was pastor at Morningside I continued a practice started before I arrived. Interracial worship was an experience I thought we all needed. We had worship services with African-American congregations regularly. After Dad joined Morningside he attended services with black congregations. He told me what that first experience had meant to him. “Before I went to bed I got down on my knees and I prayed, ‘O Lord, you know there is prejudice in my heart. Please, dear Lord, take that away and help me see people the way you see them.’”

Now at seventy years of age, I look back at my Southern heritage. Though there is much to cherish, it has been a racist heritage. I have seen each generation make progress. Now, our children are teaching me, and I have hope.

Years ago I removed pictures of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from the wall of my study. I took down a picture of the Confederate flag and the poem “The Lost Cause.” I removed those at the request of our children, later replacing them with pictures of our thirteen grandchildren.

Legacy has trumped heritage.

The challenge posed recently by one of our children is this, “Racism has been a part of our heritage. It does not have to be a part of our legacy.”

A line from South Pacific says “Children have to be taught to hate and fear….They have to be carefully taught.”

For Dylann Roof, the twenty-one-year-old man who shot nine people to death in a prayer service at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, racism was a part of his heritage. Unfortunately, racism became his legacy.

I don’t want racism to be the legacy of our grandchildren.

This Saturday we will celebrate the Fourth of July, Independence Day. I will give each of our grandchildren a flag. It will not be the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy, an emblem from my heritage, one inherently tied to racism. It will be the Stars and Stripes of Old Glory, the banner that represents our legacy as Americans, “with liberty and justice for all.”

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