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Seeing Pastor Harry Reeder Surrounded by Confederate Flags Breaks My Heart

Dr. Harry Reeder of Briarwood Presbyterian Church was the keynote speaker for Confederate Memorial Day on April 23, 2018, at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery.
Dr. Harry Reeder of Briarwood Presbyterian Church was the keynote speaker for Confederate Memorial Day on April 23, 2018, at the Alabama State Capitol. (Photo composite: briarwood.org/Miranda Pederson/Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a Confession: I Used to Love the Confederate Flag

Dr. Harry Reeder was invited by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to be the keynote speaker at the Confederate Memorial Day event held April 23 at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. There were not-great pictures of him at a podium holding a Bible and looking into a crowd festooned with Confederate flags. Apparently, Reeder was the keynote speaker for a similar event in 2004. Reeder is the pastor of one of the largest churches in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). He’s been the pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church for many years and has a great deal of influence in the denomination.

Dr. Reeder the public figure is also someone whose family I have had personal contact with, so I don’t write any of this lightly. Also, I am not the only member of the Reformed community who has taken issue with his appearance at the Confederate Memorial Day event.

I am a White woman from Mississippi married to a Black man. Years ago, our family (including some of our children) spent time with Reeder’s extended family while we were at a missions conference to raise financial support for my husband’s job as a campus minister at an historically Black university. The Reeder family was kind and gracious—there were no awkward moments.

Frankly, I haven’t given Dr. Reeder a lot of thought over the years. However, seeing him with those flags, with that organization, hit me in a hurtful way. I am not hurt just for myself, but also for our small population of Black Presbyterians who I want to feel safe and loved, not just tolerated or fetishized. Selfishly, I want there to be more and more people for my biracial children to look up to, to see, to love. I just want what’s best for my kids, right?

Here’s a confession: I used to love that flag.

I had it on my wall in high school. I doodled it during class, which I’m sure the Black girl who sat behind me didn’t appreciate.

Confederate flag

I’ve attended a Confederate Heritage Ball.

Steve Wilkins was a consistent figure my family talked about and knew—the same Steve Wilkins the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a Neo-confederate pastor and who was once on the board of the League of the South.

My thrall to the Lost Cause was broken during college, thanks to several of my classes and a campus pastor who preached against racism. The flag became something I could leave behind. Then I married into a Black family, and the flag became a threat. There was no way to know if that flag’s display meant “personally kind but misguided person” or “person who wants to destroy my family.” But I never forget that I could have been a few different classes away or a different campus minister away from being one of the ladies pictured holding the flag at the Confederate Memorial Day event.

It’s no secret our denomination and the churches who are older than it haven’t been great at “race relations.” We’ve had two different apologies for our churches’ role in slavery and in impeding the Civil Rights movements. In 2017, the men at our General Assembly approved the creation of a unity fund to “raise up future generations of African-American and other ethnic minority Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders.” I still hope for more and better—maybe something for women’s ministry or layfolk or reparations for the tithes of profit stolen from enslaved laborers, but our denomination is stumbling towards making it right.

In his remarks at the Confederate Memorial Day event, Reeder talked about George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, apparently using the formerly enslaved men as examples of leadership. Reeder explains in a blog post about controversy over his appearance at the pro-Confederate gathering:

But, I must note I was compelled to also recount Booker T. Washington’s courageous speech at what today is Piedmont Park in Atlanta for the segregated audience at the Cotton Exchange Expo where he manifested unbelievable courage while calling for racial reconciliation in the South. I confess to having stood on the spot where he made that speech with hatred directed at him from both sides of the segregated crowd, while also trying to imagine the personal fortitude it took to speak under the hateful glares from all sides and then his wonderful skill as an orator as he overcame his fears and their hatred to draw the entire crowd to his yes incomplete, but clear call to racial reconciliation–imploring them to come together illustrated by his clasped hands and “drop down your bucket.”

The full text of Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” speech is here. It appears Dr. Reeder completely misread the text. Washington’s remarks were not a call to reconciliation. Unless the accomplished orator was playing a very sneaky game, his remarks were a promise of conciliation, of placation. The import of the speech appears to be “use us, don’t kill us, and we’ll both prosper.” Washington denigrates the personhood and gifting of formerly enslaved people in a way that will make White people comfortable and implies that Black people have no place in intellectual or political pursuits. It is a speech that submits to the idea that White people should have all the power in the country and cede it to Black people only when they see fit. That’s not reconciliation; it’s a vague acknowledgement of the problems. There’s no “what can you do to make it right?”

Reconciliation does not sacrifice the goodness of interracial relationships of any sort for material profit. “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress,” according to Washington. This is not a call to racial reconciliation, but a call to support the status quo, albeit with less lynchings and more successful capitalists.

Washington was saying that my children’s Black ancestors weren’t worthy of pursuing anything beyond service or manual labor. That makes me angry. Or maybe, Washington was saying the cost of pursuit isn’t worth it; getting White people to cede their power and expectations, that conflict isn’t worth it. But it was, and it is, and getting the fingers to not be separate is also good. (Thank you, Lovings!)

Separate but equal has never worked—not when one group has and keeps all of the resources to themselves. It doesn’t end up being equal. Read the report by the Milton Eisenhower Foundation. Read the work of Hannah Nikole-Jones. Heck, read Frederick Douglass.

At the bus station in Durham, North Carolina
“At the bus station in Durham, North Carolina.” May 1940. (Photo: Jack Delano/FSA/Library of Congress)

In his blog post defense, Reeder talks about how he had previously been at a rally with lots of rainbow flags and never worried that anyone would think he supported gay rights. But no matter one’s stand on gay rights, it seems clear that gay pride flags are for a small group aching for what they see as equal treatment. They are not a group whose whole existence is based on unequal treatment as written into law. THERE IS A DIFFERENCE. Despite my own personal great interactions with Dr. Reeder, his speaking to a group that loves Confederate flags, his “anything for the gospel” attitude, makes me doubt his sincerity in the way he treated my family. I don’t want to, but his actions make it difficult to think otherwise. Sometimes you can say “no” for the sake of the gospel. God is at work even if we don’t stand at a podium surrounded by Confederate flags. Also, if what he said didn’t make the Sons of Confederate Veterans unhappy, then maybe Reeder didn’t speak clearly enough.

I used to love the Confederate flag. It made me happy, it made me feel like I belonged. Now I question if Reeder just doesn’t care enough about my family or about Black people to care about the feelings his presence around that flag engenders.

Reeder eventually apologized for his appearance. “Yet that doesn’t diminishes [sic] the pain I feel at the awareness of the pain, offense and confusion which that picture caused my brothers in the faith and most especially my African-American fathers and brothers,” he writes in his blog post.

But, he adds elsewhere: “… while I am particularly concerned of any offense to my African- American fathers and brothers I do want them to know that a partial reason for my speaking at such events to proclaim the Gospel and a call to personal racial reconciliation was to advance our denomination’s overture of promoting Gospel racial reconciliation throughout every demographic in our society as well as the church.”

I’m sorry I hurt you but maybe there are things that are more important.

Even in his apology—which I don’t doubt is sincere and the best he can do—Dr. Reeder still values himself and HIS preaching the gospel more than what he could possibly learn if he listened to a range of Black people, and not just 19th century figures Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.

[bs-quote quote=”I would love to be wrong on this, but his is the kind of rhetoric you get when you mean well but have not humbled yourself to submit to the truth in narratives besides your own, or submitted your White life to the view of intimate Black friends…” style=”style-17″ align=”center” color=”#dd3333″][/bs-quote]

I would love to be wrong on this, but his is the kind of rhetoric you get when you mean well but have not humbled yourself to submit to the truth in narratives besides your own, or submitted your White life to the view of intimate Black friends (and not just those who always agree with you). Dr. Reeder admits that he wavered on whether or not he should have said yes to this invitation by a pro-Confederate organization. Then he says he decided to say yes BECAUSE of a desire to pursue racial reconciliation. He doesn’t say he picked up a phone and called any of the Black leaders in our denomination to ask for their input.

Dr. Reeder’s words remind me of Hebrews 12:4: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”

As Reeder explains in one of his posts about the event, he is regarded as an expert in the Civil War. He notes that he uses that designation to reach people in situations he couldn’t as a pastor. Every biography of him I could find noted his book on leadership that uses George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington as examples. Reeder has built a framework that allows him to engage in some aspects of the Black experience and bolster his identity as an evangelist. But what I cannot find in his posts is humility. I hate to have to say that.

We’re reformed Presbyterians. We love predestination, and we believe that God uses means. He can save the thief on the cross, and Christ’s death is powerful enough to atone for every Christian’s sin, before and after conversion. God will save His people. He is at work, and there’s no need to participate in a morally-compromised event out of fear that lives will be lost or due to a conviction that you are the most effective person to reach people with the gospel.

The Alabama Daughters of the Confederacy exists to remember soldiers who died to defend a state whose constitution included this line: “No slave in this State shall be emancipated by any act done to take effect in this State, or any other country.” We must condemn the confederacy, not convert it. I wish Dr. Reeder had been able to resist this “opportunity,” to shed his blood—the things it appears he values about himself—or used it to fight against the sin of white supremacy and the continued dehumanization of people of African descent.

Here is another confession: Writing that sentence about condemning the confederacy literally made my stomach hurt. Although I’ve renounced the Lost Cause, its roots run deep. It is hard.

Dr. Reeder’s posts indicate he is trying to listen. He wrote that he plans to visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. However imperfectly, he is trying. I pray he’s able to embrace the stories of other Black people besides the two safe historical figures he loves. I pray he can go beyond the tepid call for personal reconciliation to the full embrace of fighting the systemic injustice in our denomination and in the state he’s ministered to for so long. I pray for all of us majority members of our denomination that we will fight to achieve the humility, powered by the love of Christ, that can sustain lasting change.

Although his apology only referenced the pain he has caused “fathers and brothers,” this hurt sister and mother is trying to accept it. I’m praying for greater understanding, deeper repentance, and truer unity in our denomination.


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