If the celebration of Dr. King’s birth was noted everywhere more fully, it is because, of the two cultures locked in a hard history of hating and loving, enduring and prevailing, the black culture had the hardest time of it.
The unequal scale of the memorials to the two men is a measure of the bitterness of black history that begins with the biblical oppression of slavery and the long, long insult to the human spirit of racial segregation, which didn’t end until the latter half of the 20th century.
Dr. King’s stone statue rises 30 feet above the National Mall in Washington as a symbol of hope “from a mountain of despair.” Gen. Lee’s stone, uniformed likeness is recumbent on the altar of Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University, where he was president after the Civil War.
Lee lived a tragic irony. He fought with courage, honor and great skill because he loved Virginia more than he did the government in Washington, not knowing that in their fighting and in their dying, both sides had made a nation.
The wonder of Dr. King’s life is that a slight, serious 26-year-old leader of a bus boycott, with very human frailties, could be endowed with such gifts of oratory and leadership that he vanquished an ancient civilization, but was tragically struck down before he could see the fruits of his struggle.
At a modest ceremony for Dr. King in Anniston City Meeting Center, one mother, with a table full of her children and relatives, put the occasion this way: “It’s not about the holiday. It’s about how the world has changed. The way he made everybody believe that one day we all could be together like this.”
The nearby Janney Furnace site, where a Civil War skirmish took place, was also a gathering place last weekend. It is now a pleasant park where children can learn about the war and see an actual cannon. Some people there told The Star that it was right to celebrate Lee and King on the same day because they are both mighty figures in Southern history.
A Confederate flag at the historical park seems appropriate at that place. Yet it was a symbol that for most of my adult life made me cringe. I saw it as a badge of hate worn by abusive police and the Ku Klux Klan in denial of the outrage of black history in America.
But as the mother at the local King ceremony said, the world has changed. Is there still a good reason to totally suppress all of the ensigns and totems that are honored by white Southerners as a part of their historic journey?
From the Boston Pops to the New York Philharmonic, the moving anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” can be played with universal approval, but it would be an outrage if the symphony struck up “Dixie.”
For the life of them, ordinary Southerners can’t understand why they can’t sing their song. It is uniquely their song; it awakens a whole cluster of native memories of home and hometown, of families and friends and high school football games, it is patriotic adrenalin. It brings them to their feet.
“Dixie” is a symbol of a place and of the things that happened to a people along the way. The mingling of native pride and tragedy speaks to me about the story of my land.
The last time I heard a symphonic version of the song was at a music festival in Brevard, N.C., by a mixed orchestra of students and professionals. It brought several in the audience to their feet with a shout. I was not one of them.
It is a merry tune and rightly so, for theirs were happy times “way down there in Dixie,” but when the melancholy cellos were heard, they spoke of the fuller story, of tragic choices made in passion unmindful of terrible consequences.
To most ordinary Southerners, the flag and the song are no more aggressive in intent than the high school colors and fight song.
Blacks, on the other hand, have difficulty understanding the innocent belief that these symbols are for every Southerner. Growing up in Selma, they saw the Confederate flag as a specially designed license plate on the front of police cars.
It is a sad continuing legacy of the Civil War that symbols of that conflict, and the way they have been abused by a minority of thugs, have distorted the American political system.
National Democrats are so fearful of the possibility that their candidates will be infected by our toxic symbols that the party flinches, looks away and concedes an entire region to the farther shores of the Republican right wing.
It would be smart for Democrats to recognize that it is wrong to suppress a people’s culture and to admit that it is okay for people to celebrate their history and their better traditions. The party could then compete nationally.
Wouldn’t it be a grand all-American concert if the two cultures merged in enjoyment of the orchestra playing in sequence the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Dixie,” “We Shall Overcome” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag”?
Until we all develop the self-confidence in our own culture to be enlightened and entertained by such a concert, our cultures will not merge. We will perceive each other in the false half-light of our incomplete understanding.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.