The day I met “Rebel Rich” started off great, I woke up bright and early one Sunday morning and boarded a bus bound to Gettysburg for a class field trip.
When my Geology of War class arrived, we toured the battlefield, taking note of the pivotal sites that shaped one of the most important battles of the Civil War.
We made a visit to the site of Pickett’s Charge for one of our last stops of the day. To my surprise, as our bus pulled up, I noticed a guy outside holding a Confederate flag.
When I went on a class trip to Gettysburg I didn’t expect to cross paths with a man in full Confederate rebel attire proudly carrying a Confederate flag.
But there I was.
Just feet from a statue built in remembrance of Robert E. Lee, a guy by the name of “Rebel Rich” was giving his two cents on the Civil War.
Rich with replica rifle in one hand and his flag in the other was chatting with any passersby willing to entertain him.
When our bus stopped, I got off and bee-lined in his direction.
I wanted to hear what he had to say.
As I walked toward Rich I felt nervous. I considered the different ways that our interaction could end in disaster.
There were a lot.
While I understood that I was walking into a complicated situation, I also saw a moment of incredible opportunity.
When else could this Confederate sympathizer, probably in his ’50s or ’60s, have a levelheaded conversation with a young black man?
If I had to guess, Rich hadn’t ever had a candid conversation with a black person about his affinity for the Confederate flag. The same went for me. Never in my life had I come in contact with someone who so confidently carried that flag in my vicinity.
When I think about the Confederate flag, my heart breaks for the lives lost in senseless acts of violence in the past few years.
To me, the Confederate flag represents hatred and terror, to see this flag waved makes me sick.
When I saw Rich that day at Gettysburg, I had to understand what compelled him to align himself with such a symbol of hate.
All things considered, our conversation went pretty well. It wasn’t life-changing, but I believe that it was important.
Rich didn’t spit on me or call me the n-word, and neither of us physically attacked each other, which to me is a win in 2019.
In our short dialogue Rich did say some things that raised some red flags, but to me he didn’t seem to be an overtly hateful person.
From my perspective, Rich seemed ill informed and overly-nostalgic about our nation’s past.
In his words, Rich waves the Confederate flag in remembrance of 17 and 18-year-old boys who lost their lives fighting for the Confederacy. To me, it also seems that a lot of Rich’s beliefs stem from the idea that the 1860s is an era from our nation’s past to be celebrated; at one point saying “there was no hate in the world in the 1860s.”
I disagree with Rich.
In fact, I think Rich’s beliefs are profoundly incorrect, but for a moment instead of us both going home and screaming into our respective echo chambers, Rich and I had a conversation, and I think we are both better for it.
I didn’t change Rich’s mind and he didn’t change mine, and to be honest, I wish we could’ve talked for longer. Nonetheless, I’m happy that we had the opportunity to talk. Our interaction added nuance to the polarizing depictions of one another that we are both inundated with on a daily basis.
After the conversation we became people that disagree, not just caricatures of the political enemy. To me that is the first step in finding a common ground.
It’s important that we avoid letting people on the news, on Twitter or wherever tell us how to feel about people with opposing viewpoints before we at least make an effort to talk to them.
We need to re-humanize one another. In a world where much of our public discourse is mediated through technology, it seems we are losing the ability to understand others. None of us are one-dimensional or simple. If we are going to overcome hate and indifference we must make conscious efforts to try and understand each other.
For things to get better we need to find anyone and everyone willing to have civil conversations from different ideologies and get them talking.
My experience with Rich has only reinforced my belief that dialogue plays a central role in ensuring that our democracy runs effectively. Nothing can change if we continue to shout at each other from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
I’ll never know how my conversation with Rich will impact his life, but for me, my conversation with Rich gives me hope that we can overcome the hyper polarized climate that typifies life in 2019.
One conversation at a time.