Re­fus­ing to ac­cept rebel flags is what heroic Amer­i­cans do

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS -

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth and LaShan­dra Smith-Ray­field do not know each other. Yet. But I would like to in­tro­duce them. Well, at least I would like to in­tro­duce Col. Ellsworth to Ms. Smith-Ray­field.

Sadly, I can­not like­wise in­tro­duce Ms. Smith-Ray­field to Col. Ellsworth, time’s ar­row be­ing what it is. But I fancy he would have ap­proved.

Smith-Ray­field con­fronted a group dis­play­ing a large Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag towel on the beach in Evanston last week. She didn’t just hap­pen by. Those who just hap­pened by did what most peo­ple do when just hap­pen­ing by some­thing wrong: noth­ing.

Smith-Ray­field hur­ried there and made a stand.

“It makes me un­com­fort­able in a place that I pay taxes and rent,” she told those sprawled be­fore the rebel flag. “That right there is a racist sym­bol of hate.”

Some­one else at the beach — a “man of color” in Smith-Ray­field’s words — who later said he had hoped to have a pri­vate word with those dis­play­ing the flag, on the video says he’s a vet, he fought for free ex­pres­sion, the flag’s fine.

“It’s not fine,” Smith-Ray­field replied. “It’s not fine. You teach your chil­dren to speak up about this kind of thing . . . . You fought for a flag that had 50 stars. They lost the bat­tle.”

Yes, they did. Which is where Ellsworth comes in. He was born in 1837 a New Yorker but as an adult moved to Chicago, where he read law. Then to Spring­field, where he shared an of­fice with Abra­ham Lin­coln. Ellsworth helped him with his vic­to­ri­ous 1860 pres­i­den­tial campaign.

When war came, Ellsworth re­turned to New York, raised a vol­un­teer reg­i­ment and went to fight. On May 24, 1861, he and his men crossed the Po­tomac to oc­cupy Alexan­dria, Vir­ginia. The owner of the Mar­shall House Inn had raised an enor­mous Con­fed­er­ate flag — 14 feet long — over his ho­tel. Lin­coln could see that flag from the White House with a spy­glass.

Ellsworth, with four men be­hind, bounded up the stairs of the ho­tel and cut down the flag.

On their way down, James Jack­son, the ho­tel owner, was wait­ing. He leapt from a hid­ing place and shot Ellsworth with a shot­gun, point blank, be­fore be­ing killed by one of Ellsworth’s men.

Ellsworth was the first Union of­fi­cer to die in the Civil War. And it is sig­nif­i­cant that he gave his life re­mov­ing a sym­bol of big­otry from Amer­i­can soil. Th­ese sym­bols have mean­ing; they stand for a hate­ful ide­ol­ogy, ram­pant. They meant some­thing then and mean some­thing now. As does the act of either silently ac­cept­ing or ac­tively re­sist­ing them.

Lin­coln sent an honor guard to re­trieve Ellsworth’s body and had him lie in state in the East Room. “Re­mem­ber Ellsworth!” be­came a ral­ly­ing cry.

I guess we for­got. For­got Ellsworth. For­got that dis­play­ing the Con­fed­er­ate flag is not a neu­tral act. It is ag­gres­sive, and its per­pe­tra­tors de­served what grief they get. The grief Smith-Ray­field gave them. She re­turned Fri­day with hun­dreds of pro­test­ers to the beach to urge Amer­i­cans to stand up in the face of racism.

“Be brave for 30 sec­onds,” she said.

She’s right. The easy thing is to walk by. That’s why most peo­ple do noth­ing. It’s easy, and what haters count on. Bul­lies are cow­ards — no one is a bigot out of ex­cess of courage. They strut when it’s safe but wilt when stood up to, mum­bling their ex­cuses. It’s up to good peo­ple to make that ef­fort, to re­mem­ber the rights we en­joy didn’t just plop in our laps.

Be brave for 30 sec­onds. And for 159 years. That the bat­tle has gone on this long is both tragic and in­spir­ing. Lives were lost, brave sol­diers like Elmer Ellsworth, who was 24 when he died, and un­cel­e­brated civil­ians since. Right up to this day, when Smith-Ray­field and her sup­port­ers still fight for the flag of free­dom, the one with 50 stars.

Our rights had to be fought for, had to be won. And must be fought for to be kept, still. Oth­er­wise we lose them. Sad that the fight has had to go on this long. And won­der­ful that pa­tri­otic Amer­i­cans don’t give up. Nei­ther have the de­scen­dants of the Con­fed­er­ates. But there is an im­por­tant dif­fer­ence: Un­like them, we have some­thing worth fight­ing for.

Re­mem­ber that. Re­mem­ber Elmer Ellsworth. And re­mem­ber LaShan­dra Smith-Ray­field. Amer­i­cans sep­a­rated by al­most 160 years. But cut from the same cloth.

NEIL STEIN­BERG nstein­berg@sun­times.com | @NeilStein­berg

SUN-TIMES LI­BRARY

Col. Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth was the first Union of­fi­cer to die in the Civil War.

The flag Col. Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth died to re­move is the stars and bars orig­i­nal flag of the Con­fed­er­acy, not the bat­tle flag pop­u­lar to­day.

SUN-TIMES PAT NABONG/

LaShan­dra SmithRay­field

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