American politics are too often an ugly, mean-spirited affair, full of moral posing and finger pointing, which is probably why so many people are turned off by it.
But we were not turned off by the truly amazing grace that has been on full display in Charleston, S.C., in the wake of tragedy there.
In recent weeks, I have written favorably about the business climate of South Carolina in my role as a consultant for industry and economic development.
But in this blog entry, I am not writing so much as a consultant but rather as one who believes that we as a nation on the cusp of becoming a much better people. This is my hope.
For it is in the aftermath of something that is as terrible as the slaughter of innocents in a church with a predominately African-American congregation that we often take a closer look at ourselves and our motives and forge change.
By any measure, it’s been a rough year in this country, where violence erupted in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore amid racial tension.
Dylann Roof, 21-year-old white supremacist, hoped to exploit that tension with the twisted belief that he could precipitate a race war when he gunned down nine black parishioners in cold blood after sitting with them for an hour during a prayer meeting.
Little did he know that his actions would reveal the essence of Christianity in ways that I think will forever transform the South and the rest of the nation.
At Roof’s bond hearing, the families of the victims gave moving statements about their loved ones, acknowledging anger and pain but praying for the accused killer’s soul and telling him he was forgiven.
May God Have Mercy on You
“I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you,” a daughter of Ethel Lance said. “And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”
Felicia Sanders — mother of victim Tywanza Sanders and a survivor of the church shooting herself — said that “every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same.”
“As we said in the Bible study, we enjoyed you,” she said of Roof. “But may God have mercy on you.”
Their amazing grace galvanized not just a city and a state but caught the attention of the world. President Obama tweeted: “In the midst of darkest tragedy, the decency and goodness of the American people shines through in these families.”
At the first service following the horrific slaughter of the nine innocent souls at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rev. Norvel Goff told a packed, multiracial congregation, ‘Lots of folks expected us to do something strange and break out in a riot. Well, they just don’t know us.”
Said South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley of the victims’ relatives: “Their expression of faith and forgiveness took our breath away.”
And it did. I asked myself if I could be such a great person if I were in their shoes.
I’m not sure that I could.
A War Still Being Fought
As a son of the South, I must confess that I have been sensitive to some of the uninformed bigotry and condescending comments I have heard from elites around this nation concerning the South.
“Practically the whole region has rejected nearly everything that’s good about this country and has become just one big nuclear waste site of choleric, and extremely racialized, resentment,” the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky wrote last year.
So how do you explain the tens of thousands of South Carolinians, white and black, marching in unity across the Ravenel Bridge? Were these all good Northerners who had descended upon Charleston? Perhaps some were, and I can assure you that they would have been welcomed.
Historian Barbara Fields said, “The Civil War is still being fought and can still be lost.”
I believe her assessment is correct, but the massacre in Charleston, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861, may bring us closer to a true ending of that damn war. This is also my hope.
A Tough History
“On matters of race, South Carolina has a tough history,” said Gov. Haley, an Indian-American. “We all know that. Many of us have seen it in our own lives—in the lives of our parents and our grandparents. We don’t need reminders.”
“For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble—traditions of history, of heritage and of ancestry.” But “for many others . . . the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.” The state can “survive” as home to both viewpoints: “We do not need to declare a winner and a loser here. We respect freedom of expression, and that for those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way.”
“But the statehouse is different and the events of this past week call upon us to look at this in a different way. . . . Today, we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds.”
Within 48 hours of Gov. Haley showing true leadership, the governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, ordered the flag removed from the statehouse grounds there, and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker said his state’s flag, which incorporates the Confederate design, should be altered. Govs. Nathan Deal of Georgia and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia said they’d do away with vanity license plates that include the banner.
A Perfect Union is Within Our Grasp
Here we have had both parties, with people of all colors, coming together in a come-to-Jesus fashion to atone for our country’s original sin. The Confederate flag will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history, which is where it belongs.
Now we should never forget our history, because it has unduly shaped us. But we, too, can shape history and put oppression and hate behind us, and to lean forward to ensure dignity and civil rights for all.
A perfect union is not so wild a dream. It is within our grasp, especially now with a movement of reconciliation in Charleston. Let us act.
Apostles of Disunion
There will be, of course, some remaining neo-Confederates. They will go to their graves believing and telling anyone who might listen that the old Confederacy was a supremely noble cause which was all about state’s rights and not about slavery.
These deluded persons are mistaken at best or liars at worst. For any rational study of our history will reveal that the Old Confederacy was founded on principles of the continuation and protection of the institution of slavery.
In his book Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, Charles Dew draws upon the very words of the secession commissioners in concluding that irrational fears of three imminent horrors – racial equality, race war, and miscegenation – spurred secession.
The commissioners preached a gospel of salvation by secession, contending the white race was in mortal danger with the election of Abraham Lincoln and the “black Republicans.
After the war, many of these same secession leaders became ardent proponents of the Lost Cause, conveniently seeming to forget their warnings of degradation before black assassins and fanatic abolitionists and insisting the South fought only for constitutional government and liberty.
My Confederate Roots
Today’s neo-Confederates continue to believe this Lost Cause mythology. Just as they are duped by a big lie, so too was my great grandfather, Thomas Elkins, who enlisted in the Confederate Army in Sweetwater, Tenn., in December 1862
Like the overwhelming majority of confederate soldiers, Thomas was no slave owner. In his mind, he was probably fighting to repel an invader from his homeland. In all actuality, he was fighting for a wealthy planter class to keep their slaves.
Thomas may have eventually figured that out when the Confederate Congress passed a law stating that anyone owning 20 slaves or more was exempt from serving in the Confederate Army.
Soon thereafter, the conflict was viewed as a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” within the somewhat demoralized Confederate ranks.
After the war, my great grandfather would become a Presbyterian minister. My grandfather would later tell me stories that he could remember of Thomas telling him about fighting the Yankees and being captured during a raid at Big Hill, Kentucky, in 1863 and being sent to Camp Chase, Ohio, as a prisoner of war.
I have visited Thomas Elkins’ grave at a country church cemetery outside of Cleveland, Tenn. His headstone is prominently marked that he was a member of the 2nd Tenn. Cavalry, Co C., CSA.
And my grandfather, Homer Elkins, a kindly southern gentlemen, would briefly become a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1920s but would drop out, appalled by the violence that he apparently witnessed.
He would, however, remain a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and I still have a stack of his Confederate Veteran magazines from the 1960s. I never heard him once utter a racial slur.
Like his father, Homer was a devout Presbyterian. He had a Masonic funeral.
The Best Among Us
In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln noted that both the North and the South “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other …”
Much is done in God’s name, some good, some bad. Men will make all sorts of excuses for what they do. Defenders of slavery would cherry-pick scripture in support of their “peculiar institution,” as if it was somehow God’s will.
Which only goes to show that we are all broken and flawed creations, precisely because we have been bestowed with this thing called free will. As such, we will frequently assign credit and blame for what we do as God’s will, thinking that will someway absolve us.
Only the grace of God absolves any of us. And those among us who have the strength of faith to forgive and give grace, well, they are the best among us. And we have seen them in Charleston.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 972-767-9518. If you liked what you read here, invite him to speak at your next meeting.