Democracy in Action

by Cassie Selleck

I am a Southerner by birth, a descendant of a long line of European ancestors who arrived on the shores of the Carolinas and Georgia in the 1700’s. I cannot extricate myself from my Southern identity; it follows me wherever I go and makes itself known the second I open my mouth. My accent is not the only thing that gives me away, though. You can tell I’m Southern by the way I cook - cheese grits, sausage gravy and biscuits, tomato sandwiches, fried chicken and collard greens are staples in my home. 

You can tell where I’m from by the way I wave at passing cars, speak to almost everyone near me, and by the way I say “Yes Ma’am” and “No Ma’am” as a sign of respect. I may venture off to other parts of the country, but I always find my way back to our lush landscapes with palm trees, Spanish moss, and ‘gator-filled lakes. 

I am proud of our heritage, but not necessarily our history. Some of my forefathers fought and died in the American Civil War and, though I realize the courage it must have taken to go to war, I cannot take pride in the principles for which they fought. Nor will our genetic link cause me to rationalize or defend the fact that some of them owned slaves and sought to secede from the United States. It was wrong then, and it would be wrong to glorify it now. 

On the other hand, some of my ancestors spoke out against slavery, some were active in women’s suffrage, and some, like my mother, were vocal advocates for civil rights laws in the 50s and 60s. That is the heritage I value, the family members who called for change, the parents who raised me to think beyond myself and champion the causes of those who are suffering at the hands of the unjust.

I was recently in Columbia, South Carolina when a group of citizens scheduled a rally to protest the Confederate flag that still hangs in the courtyard of the state house, among other Civil War monuments. I confess I was surprised it still hung there. I have rarely seen the flag flown in the South for any reason other than to express bigoted and racist viewpoints, usually in an attempt to intimidate people of color. 

The Confederate flag is not a symbol of Southern pride. It is a symbol of a time when the Southern government tried to gain power, acquire land, and secure privilege and prosperity for white people, on the backs of people of color. It was a time of cruel disregard for human life. It is a symbol of a dark time in our history, NOT a symbol of our heritage.

I am politically active, and race relations have always been important to me, but I have been discouraged lately. I keep thinking the divide is too great, the wounds too deep, and the wealthy whites in power too influential to make any real progress.

So, I went to the rally in Columbia expecting to see a handful of folks demanding the flag be removed, and another handful protesting the removal. What I saw when I got there was nothing like I imagined. There were thousands of people in attendance, all peacefully and exuberantly making their values known. There were people of many cultures and ethnicities, meeting each other with the common goal of making a difference, speaking up, and participating in the democratic process that demands government of the people, by the people and for the people. 

What I saw was democracy in action. I saw politicians being reminded that government must represent all of the people, not just the ones in power. History has shown that a government based on suppression of ideas, oppression of minorities, and majority control will eventually fail. Civil unrest leads to civil disobedience and eventually civil war. 

In the days since the protest I have hovered between relief and elation at the outpouring of support across the country. Not only does it look like the flag will be removed from the state house, but huge retailers are pulling Confederate merchandise across the United States. But there are other emotions just below the surface of my satisfaction. They are boiling up in response to the deaths in Charleston, the unarmed black men and women assaulted and killed by law enforcement officers, the hatefulness expressed by white people who cling to their despicable need to feel superior, validated, powerful. 

I am sad and angry. I am tired and disgusted. I am ashamed and fearful. I am afraid we are never going to get where we need to be. I am afraid we have crossed lines and evaded responsibility for so long that we cannot recover. I am afraid for every parent who must teach their children how to be safe in their own skin. I am afraid for every young man who has been drained of hope, and who must still look at the historical monuments of his own government and know that it has not conspired for his welfare, nor supported his dreams. 

We are poised for significant change in the current and coming years, but there is no simple fix and no one right answer. If we are to change in meaningful, stable and permanent ways, we must be willing to speak up and to listen. Our battles should never be against each other, but in support of all. Democracy depends on diversity and inclusion, and works when people raise their voices and know that they will be heard. 

photo by Cassie Selleck