I thought of my father on Oct. 25, 2015 when I was attending a counter-protest to a pro-confederate rally at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
After many loud pick-up trucks flying Confederate flags drove down Franklin St., the group gathered in the parking lot of the Morehead Planetarium.
They stood beside the Chapel of the Cross, the Episcopal church with a long connection to the university.
I think my father’s ghost visited me at that moment.
Instead of walking away, I walked toward the protesters, feeling the urge to sing a hymn from my childhood that speaks of fighting the dragons of anger.
In the brief conversation I had with the Confederate protesters, we talked about Southern heritage.
Like them, I have a proud Southern heritage.
My ancestors included signers of the Declaration of Independence, a governor, an ambassador, an architect and a bishop.
Some were rice planters and built their wealth using the technical skill and forced labor of brutally enslaved African Americans.
The women were educated, and accomplished – and mostly anonymous.
In the early 1960s, when I was a baby in Mobile, A.L., my father helped organize a church youth gathering that included youth from white and black churches.
In the aftermath of that interracial youth get-together, some clergy lost their jobs.
We had threats of a cross burning. My dad kept his job, but we had college students stay at our home when he was away to protect us.
I sang Dixie when I was a child in Alabama, and I love these Southern lands.
But I understand the complexity of our history, and the power of symbols that can be used to intimidate.
The celebration of the Confederate flag and monuments like Silent Sam, erected at a time when Jim Crow laws were being used to deny equal rights, and organized groups like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized people of color and their allies to keep them in their place, elicits fear amongst many.
That Sunday in 2015, seeing so many Confederate flags waving on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, my heart ached.
The Confederate battle flag is strongly associated with an ideology of hate, of denying a place in our country for those perceived to be the other.
I thought of the Charleston Nine, and Our Three Winners, three Muslim students shot execution style a few miles from my home. They were all deeply religious individuals, murdered by individuals who were filled with hate.
Here is what I saw on campus that day: there were two groups of counter-protesters, one well-organized by UNC students.
This group stood on the opposite side of Silent Sam from the pro-Confederate rally.
They were loud and at times used profanity in their chants.
Not everyone in this group joined in the profanity.
There was also a smaller group of counter-protesters, not organized by UNC students.
They stood very close to the Confederate rally and were confrontational.
There was a large and calm police presence, with barricades set up around the statue of Silent Sam, separating the two main groups.
After a while, the student-organized group stepped away and gathered on the steps of a nearby building.
People stood to speak, led by a group of African American women.
We heard from a Palestinian man, an Asian American woman and a white South African man.
This group represented the university that I love, an inclusive community that includes all in the human family.
We stood up against hate.
It was important for me to be there for two reasons — to support the students and to be a witness.
I didn’t know then where we’d be in 2017, and what sleeping dragons we would wake.
For all those considered “other” and your allies who stand up against hate, I will continue to stand with you.
“Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
‘Gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed
And let me set free with the sword of my youth
From the castle of darkness, the power of truth”
Barbara B. Smith
UNC School of Social Work
Class of '93