Saints tight end Benjamin Watson is particularly engaged with current events—his thoughts after the decision not to bring charges in the shooting death of Michael Brown still stand up, and managed to find support from all sides. Today, he wrote about the swelling movement to take down the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse, in the wake of the racist murders of nine people at a Charleston church. And in keeping with his measured approach, he says whether the state lowers the flag means less than why it does so.
In a post on his Facebook page, Watson acknowledges right up front that the flag means different things to the people who fly it—“not everyone who embraced the flag embraced prejudice and supremacy alike.” But to get along in this society, it helps to be aware of what it means to those who see it. He recalls moving to South Carolina as a teenager:
I can remember visiting a teammate’s home for the first time my sophomore year. Frank, a white offensive guard on my high school football team, had quickly become my closest friend, welcoming me, the new guy, when others weren’t so quick to do so. As I walked into his room, I froze, staring uncomfortably at the large Rebel flag, hanging above his bed. I remember the lump in my throat as I briefly attempted to convey in the most non-condemning way, what the flag represented to me and many others like me. Because of the lingering heaviness of the moment, I can’t recall much after that but I do remember how valued I felt, when I returned to Frank’s home some time later and the flag was gone! He didn’t have to, but because he cared about our friendship, because he cared about me, he empathetically removed the offensive banner on my behalf and maybe for the first time heard how painful that symbol could be. That day was a turning point in our relationship and today; Frank continues to be one of my best friends.
Watson very specifically does not say the Statehouse should remove the Confederate flag, despite growing calls to do exactly that from local politicians and those in the sports sphere. He recognizes multiple times that this country affords people the freedom to make the political statements of their choice, and to deny them that would be the gravest of sins.
But, Watson says, this is a test. Are those who support the Confederate flag secure enough in their convictions to care that real people are materially affected by their choice? Are they strong enough to resist their own desires to defend the greater good? Watson says if the flag comes down as a PR move, it’s pointless. But if it comes down out of a genuine desire to avoid hurting our neighbors, well, take down the damn flag.
It should not take the brutal, senseless killings of innocent black Americans in a church by a young white man, to ensure the removal of the confederate battle flag from the State House grounds where it has flown in proud defiance of the civil rights movement since the 1960’s. If the flag wasn’t problematic before this heinous crime it should not be problematic now, and to hastily remove it in response to this slaughter, although a sympathetic (and economic) gesture, does not address the heart of the matter...It is without a doubt, however, a litmus test, exposing our willingness to deny our liberty, our freedom, to fly the flag of our choice, for the sake of offending our countrymen whose SHARED HERITAGE is conversely stained with death, injustice, rape, terror and inferiority.
If we remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol for any reason other than a change in the hearts of South Carolinians, we may as well leave it be. This is not the time for political statements and worrying about national perception. But if we, like my friend Frank, finally listen to the cries and concerns of those we say we care about, soften our hearts, and choose to lay our liberties aside to assuage the pain of our brothers, the only suitable option would be a unanimous decision to remove the flag from the public grounds at the Palmetto State Capitol. The past and its people, as acclaimed or afflicted as they may be, should always be remembered. But it is difficult to completely “move forward” if painful, divisive icons continue to stand unchallenged.
I am not as measured as Watson. The flag’s own designer said it is emblematic of “the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” South Carolina’s flag wasn’t raised on the capitol because of “southern pride,” but in 1962 in direct defiance of the civil rights movement. It has no business being associated with government. It’s a flag that represents the worst of us, and in that, at least, I do side with Watson: we won’t become better by taking it down, but we should take it down because we want to be better.