Most issues we encounter in this life have at least two sides, often more. It may not be easy to choose a side, but sometimes society, or decency, or conscience demands it.
The University of Mississippi recently chose a side and announced that its band will no longer play “Dixie” at the beginning of home football games. I received this news with a moment of regret, a touch of sadness, a whiff of nostalgia. I recalled autumn Saturday afternoons long ago at Wake Forest College (now University). Wake Forest was a small school, only about 1,500 undergraduates, but a force to be reckoned with on the football field. We students would stroll across campus and down to Groves Stadium to join the noisy mass waiting for the game to begin. And then at some point, the band would swing into “Dixie,” and we would all leap to our feet and sing, loudly and joyously.
I don’t think any of us, with not an African American in the crowd, thought for a moment that we were saluting slavery or segregation. I know I didn’t. I, who proudly donned a U.S. Army uniform once a week for drill day, and a different U.S. Army uniform for my Army Reserve unit training sessions, was a totally dedicated citizen of the United States. I sang not in rebellion against my country, but in a happy salute to my native region, an area that took pride in its warm, rich, friendly, bloody, unique history, half truth and half myth.
I have no idea if or for how long the playing and singing of “Dixie” may have lasted at my alma mater. Beginning in 1834 as a tiny institution to prepare young men from the backwoods to become Baptist preachers, in a segment of Baptists who clung to slavery until 1865, it has long since broken all but the slenderest bonds with its founding denomination. I’m not aware that its church connections ever had any influence, pro or con, on the playing and singing of what was once the song of the Confederacy. In my undergraduate years, I don’t think any of us thought much about a possible relationship between religion, racism, and an old song.
If we’re fortunate, though, we learn things as time passes. One thing I have learned is, despite my fascination with the history of the Confederacy and the Civil War, and despite my admiration for soldiers who did their duty valiantly, in a cause they didn’t choose — despite all that, maturity and morality require that I see clearly the evil involved. There is no acceptable excuse for slavery. There is no acceptable excuse for racism. And there is no acceptable excuse for remaining blind to the pain needlessly inflicted on others because of our own inability to understand that something we insisted was innocent is, to them, a raw insult.
Aside from issues of morality and ethical behavior, there is a practical matter here. Never before in my lifetime have we seemed so fragmented, angry, and on the verge of disintegration as now. It promises to get worse. If we can’t find ways to draw together, at least we ought not to cling needlessly to inconsequential things that serve to push us apart.
So, farewell, “Dixie.” I may still sing you in my head from time to time, remembering the days when a tinge of autumn, the excitement of the game, pride in my home region, and most of all youth, were a heady combination. It was a combination that made it easy to see only the positive side of life. I sang you aloud then, blind to your connection, however accidental, to wrong, past and present. I cannot pretend to still be blind.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”