‘Be brave for 30 seconds’ – and 159 years

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.

The flag Col. Ellsworth died to remove is the stars and bars original flag of the Confederacy, not the battle flag popular today among the bigoted or merely ignorant.

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.

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