It is impossible to escape the conclusion that a century-and-a-half after the bloodiest war in American history, in which some 750,000 men on both sides died, the South is still fighting for its ‘peculiar institution.’
The difference today is that the disenfranchised include not just blacks, but women, Latinos, gays, lesbians, transgenders, and Muslims – really anyone who happens not to be a certain type of Christian. In fact, it has become grimly apparent that the only demographic who come under the category ‘people’ are Fox News’ “white Christian Americans.”
It scarce needs be said that this is a depressing state of affairs so long after the issue was settled with the collapse of the Confederacy, which had been founded in defense of slavery, in 1865. But the strong support given Donald Trump by white supremacists, Neo-Nazis and the KKK (‘a Lot of What He Believes, We Believe’), all demonstrate a continuing devotion to the imagined “racial” superiority of white Europeans.
It could be argued that the adage that “The South Will Rise Again” was untrue from the first time it was uttered. Slaves were freed, but what replaced slavery – the Jim Crow era – kept black Americans disenfranchised and therefore helpless before the law. What Union troops gave at Gettysburg, Lincoln’s “Last full measure of devotion,” was given in vain after all, because in a real real sense, the South never fell.
In a study titled “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” the Southern Poverty Law Center looks at continued devotion to the Southern cause across the states that once joined to defend slavery.
Following the Charleston massacre, the Southern Poverty Law Center launched an effort to catalog and map Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces, both in the South and across the nation. This study, while far from comprehensive, identified a total of 1,503.*
Their list includes:
- 718 monuments and statues, nearly 300 of which are in Georgia, Virginia or North Carolina;
- 109 public schools named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis or other Confederate icons;
- 80 counties and cities named for Confederates;
- 9 official Confederate holidays in six states; and
- 10 U.S. military bases named for Confederates.
As we have just seen, the University of Louisville will at long last remove a Confederate monument erected in 1895 to honor Kentuckians who died in defense of slavery.
Some Southerners today will claim these monuments and holidays, and the flag of the Confederacy as part of their “heritage,” but that very heritage is one of slavery, and as the SPLC puts it, one that “conceals the true history of the Confederate States of America.”
[T]he argument that the Confederate flag and other displays represent “heritage, not hate” ignores the near-universal heritage of African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved by the millions in the South. It trivializes their pain, their history and their concerns about racism — whether it’s the racism of the past or that of today.
There can be no debate as to the causes of the Civil War, that it was fought in defense of slavery. We have the unimpeachable source that is the words of the original Confederates themselves:
The SPLC cites the Mississippi declaration of secession:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”
And the South Carolina Declaration of causes for secession,
“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”
Should there be any remaining doubt why a war was fought, Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s Vice President, in the Cornerstone Address of March 21, 1861, told his audience that,
“[T]he new [Confederate] Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
To applause, he went on to say,
“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”
Alabama just celebrated “Confederate Memorial Day” – the fourth Monday of April. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill echoed Stephens’ words when he asked, “Are you going to take a bulldozer to the monument and forget what people fought for to preserve a way of life that makes us special and unique?”
Merrill, under pressure for his remarks, later tried to claim his “way of life” has to do with some imaginary and apparently unique spirit of the Confederate soldier rather than slavery, but there was nothing unique about the Confederate soldier other than his service in defense of the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery.
These are facts to which there can be no contestation. If the Civil War had anything at all to do with so-called “states rights” the only right in question was that of owning slaves. Today it includes disenfranchising the descendants of those slaves and others who through sheer genetics don’t rate as “special and unique.”
This makes the Confederate flag – any version of the Confederate flag – a symbol of past slavery and continuing oppression, and no claim to “heritage” can be free of that stain. The unfortunate fact is that even were we rid at last of the symbols of the Confederacy, we would not be free of the hate that inspired them in the first place.