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It’s time — you can never again say you did not know

When I was in high school, I was already a history buff.

I loved to read about and study history, especially military history and our nation’s past. I had grown up on Confederate Street, just a couple of blocks from a Civil War fort, in a town steeped in Civil War history.

I loved the several-times-a-year school trips and family trips to places like Shiloh National Park and Vicksburg. It was on one of those trips, I think, that I purchased two small flags, about 4×6 inches each, on small stick poles.

I taped them inside my locker door at school — the American flag over the Confederate flag. I didn’t think anything about it. To me, the top flag was the symbol of my country and the bottom was something from our past, and nothing more.

One day between classes, I opened the door of my locker to reveal a mess. The Confederate flag had been shredded through the slots of the locker and lit on fire. Because it was made from nylon fibers, it had melted more than burned.

I was upset, because someone had violated my privacy and my property, and I commented on this to my friends and classmates nearby.

As I stood there trying to decide what to do or say further, a black friend walked up to me and looked into my locker. I could see the concern on his face.

I asked him the same question I’d asked others just prior — did he know who’d done it?

“Man, I don’t know who did it,” he said, “but I bet I can tell you why.”

He told me he was sorry someone would tear up something that belonged to me. Then he said whoever had done it probably did it because of what that flag symbolized.

I didn’t understand.

He explained that although I might look at that flag and only see a symbol of the South’s past, that was not what he saw — not what most black people saw. What they saw was a reminder that blacks were not treated in the same way whites were.

He didn’t blame me for slavery. He didn’t believe I was racist. He knew me and how I treated everyone.

“For most of us, that flag is a symbol of hatred,” he said.

It clicked, and I was ashamed. Teary eyed, I apologized to him earnestly, and I addressed my sincere apology and regret to those standing around. I now noticed just about everyone in that hallway was standing still, watching and listening.

I gathered up the pieces of that flag and threw them away. I have never since owned a flag like that.

What I did by hanging that flag in my locker was done out of ignorance, and I cannot believe I had never thought about it like that before. I was a senior in high school, for goodness’ sake.

But I had never before had a black friend look me in the eyes and gently explain to me why what I had done hurt him.

In the late 18th century, Englishman William Wilberforce fought hard against the evils of slavery that England’s commerce still held so tightly to, and once convinced his fellow members of Parliament to accompany him to view some of the wretched conditions on slave ships in the nearby harbor. Having shown them the realities of the mistreatment of black men, women and children, Wilberforce said, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”

This was my Wilberforce moment — I could never again say that I did not know the pain it caused my friends.

If you want to try to defend the legacy of that flag, you go right ahead. If you want to try to defend the legacy of a state flag that includes this battle emblem, go on and try.

You can say, “But …” all you want, call it whatever you want, but you cannot say that it does not cause genuine pain to others.

Christianity and most major religions urge their adherents not to intentionally cause pain to others. Even organized Satanism says “first do no harm.” Are we no better than that?

It’s time to step away from hate and its symbols — it’s time for a new flag over Mississippi, new hope, new love.

You can choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know.

News editor Brett Campbell can be reached at brett.campbell@dailyleader.com.