Watching “Meltdown in Dixie” from America ReFramed on PBS

“Meltdown in Dixie” caught my attention because I remember seeing this story back in 2017, about an Orangeburg, South Carolina ice cream shop owner who was fighting to have a Confederate flag removed from a tiny parcel of land by his business. Orangeburg, a small town in the western part of the state, is home to two historically black colleges and was the site of a deadly race riot in 1968. This short documentary explains that Orangeburg was also home to the eccentric segregationist Maurice Bessinger, whose barbecue restaurants enabled his outspoken way of spreading his beliefs. Though Bessinger is now deceased, he ensured that those myths and narratives would live on in clearly visible ways. 

Among the South’s most vehement beliefs is the one that says outsiders shouldn’t be moving down here and trying to change the way we live. Tommy Daras was already an outsider when he moved to Orangeburg from Maryland, but he swam into the deep water when he took a stand about removing a Confederate flag that was put there before he arrived. Daras had bought a building that previously housed one of Bessinger’s barbecue restaurants. However, before he died, Bessinger sold a few square feet of the parking lot to the Sons of the Confederate Veterans so they could continue flying the rebel flag “forever.” They gladly did that, but now, amid recent calls to end systemic racism, Daras wanted the flag taken down. The SCV, of course, refused. 

Listening to the Sons of Confederate Veterans leader took me back to the 1990s. I remember distinctly the calls to take the Confederate flags off of state capitols across the South and also the “heritage, not hate” responses that followed. Ultimately, the flags were removed, and now twenty or more years later, opposition to Confederate symbols has become more broad.

The flag beside Tommy Daras’ ice cream shop became part of that broader call, and Daras got caught in the crossfire: people wouldn’t go to his ice cream shop as long as the flag was flying, but he had no personal or legal authority to remove it. Even though he tried to have it removed, taking the issue to court as a zoning violation, he lost, and that principled stand still couldn’t save his business. Some people didn’t want to eat ice cream  where a rebel flag was flying, some stayed away to avoid trouble, and others refused to patronize his business because he wanted the flag removed. Add it all up, and Tommy Daras had few customers. So he left, and the flag stayed. 

While I understand the SCV’s position that we shouldn’t “erase history,” my thinking aligns more heavily with the notion that we also shouldn’t distort it to serve an agenda, which is what Southern segregationist leaders were doing when they placed many of those flags and monuments. Understanding common history can bring a culture together, and history should be a positive force in our collective life. With considerations to memory and preservation, total factual accuracy in what we lump together as “history” is not possible, so yielding to the reality of diverse perspectives is a valid way to approach our past. And the perspective that the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of racism, i.e. the Confederacy and later “massive resistance,” is very valid. I also don’t regard removing monuments as erasing history. The only way I could agree with that argument is: 1.) if that monument is the only testament or document preserving the legacy of the person or event, and 2.) if the intention is to not only remove it but destroy it as well. Much of our nation’s history isn’t given prominent placement in public spaces— that doesn’t mean that it has been erased. It just means that it’s not as prominent as its supporters want it to be.

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