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Empathy needed in Confederate flag debate


Las Cruces Bulletin

I own a Confederate flag. One of the famous Stars and Bars that is in the midst of such controversy.

I also own a United States flag.

I love history and used to live in Gettysburg, Pa. – where I went to graduate school – and the Civil War period is my favorite time to read about, watch television shows about, talk and debate with people about, etc.

So I own a Confederate flag because I love history. My great, great, great grandfather was from what is now West Virginia and he fought for the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee.

He was a farmer and a teacher. Mr. Townsend was his name.

My grandmother told me stories of when she was a little girl and he pulled her in a sled over some snow. She remembers his constant limp from a Union ball he took in his ankle.

I was raised in Appalachia – the southwestern hills of Pennsylvania –

fewer than 60 miles from the border with Maryland, the famous Mason-Dixon Line. Like many people, I have kin who fought on both sides of the war. Mr. Townsend, though, was my closest relative combatant. My grandmother told me my great, great, great grandfather fought at Gettysburg and as I often walked the fields and forests in the area, I would wonder if I walked some of the same ground he did.

Before I lived and studied in Gettysburg, I earned my bachelor of arts in journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the town of Indiana – Jimmy Stewart’s hometown – and used to display some history memorabilia, including my flags, in my dorm room. Once, about 4 a.m. on Sunday morning – the time is a little fuzzy because I may have partaken in a few beverages the night before – a large rock burst a hole through my second-story window and bounced off my door with a thud.

It took me several minutes to shake the cobwebs from my head and figure out what had happened.

I’ll never know if my Confederate flag had anything to do with the incident. I do know there was a weekend-long gathering of African-American fraternities from a variety of schools on campus that weekend.

I’ve always wondered if that was a coincidence or not. I was not sure if the flag could be seen two stories down on the ground.

Either way, I kept my flags up and the university fixed the window.

I do not consider the Confederate flag a symbol of hatred or racism. But I also realize there are people for whom the flag brings about feelings of fear and hatred.

My grandmother, the same one who descended from Mr. Townsend, was a quarter Cherokee on her father’s side and she would often tell us grandkids – she had bushels of them – that we should never judge someone until we “walked a mile in his moccasins.”

Not an original saying, but it made an impression on me when I was young.

I still think of her words today.

I do not know what it feels like to have had ancestors lynched by groups who waved the Confederate flag.

I do not know what it feels like to see hate groups march in town squares waving the flag.

I do not know what it feels like to see the symbol and feel my stomach clench.

I do not know what it feels like to wonder if a particular person who flies a Confederate flag will hate me because of my skin color or if he or she would welcome me with open arms.

I can intellectually understand what those fears are like. I can quasi-relate to those feelings. But I can never viscerally feel what others feel. I’ve never walked in their moccasins.

I need to have empathy.


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