One hundred and fifty years ago, millions of Americans were willing to go to war against their cousins, brothers and friends in order to protect the institution of slavery. On April 14, 1861, they fired on Ft. Sumter and the Civil War began. It ended in a courthouse at Appomattox, but it still haunts us to this day because we have never admitted to the dirty little secret about America. It is a nation built and established of white people, for white people and by white people.
In a recent poll, 40% of people in the formerly Confederate South, still believe the South was right to secede and to fight Northern aggression. Why? At Appomattox, Lee laid down his sword, Grant allowed Confederate soldiers to keep their rifles and horses, and Confederate generals still in the field, who could have carried on a guerrilla action and extended the war for years, surrendered and went home. The war was over. They fought the good fight and almost were victorious. Why or what are these people in the South still trying to articulate or preserve? If Lee and Longstreet, Beauregard and Davis accepted the end and went back to life in a "United" States, why cant today's occupants?
Slavery had existed since the dawn of time. It was not an alien institution to our land. It was an accepted part of the human condition. In a remarkable paradigm shift, slavery was outlawed in the Western world by the middle of the 19th century. Yes, the south had fought to preserve it. Yes, they thought ending it would destroy their culture and way of life. However, their views on slavery were no different than those of Washington or Jefferson. Even the Catholic Church in America owned slaves. Defending slavery was not an extraordinary leap of logic. In and of itself, fighting to preserve slavery was an example of Americans defending a deeply entrenched value. If Lincoln could have prevented war by leaving slavery in place, he gladly would have accepted that deal.
The reason the Civil War still haunts this nation is because after the South was defeated, after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, after the Constitution was amended to make former slaves US citizens, something new arose which continue to perpetuate most of the rudiments of slavery, just under a different name...Jim Crow. Despite proclamations, amendments and the failed experiment called Reconstruction, America still remained a nation of white supremacists. African Americans were no more welcome in the North than the South. Opponents of slavery often condemned the institution, while opposing attempts to integrate African Americans into society. In the South, this new suit of prejudice and bigotry was put on but with new tailors. Laws were passed to prevent black people from voting, having access to the courts, living wherever they wished, engaging in free market capitalism or taking advantage of the rise of land grant colleges and universities. Separate and unequal became the law of the land. Former slaves, or the descendants of slaves, declared non-persons by the Dred Scott decision, were still non-persons and all of America participated in the process.
Those 40% of Southerners, who identify with the Confederacy, aren't doing so for states rights or because of antipathy towards the Federal government. They were thrilled to allow FDR to bring electricity and power to their rural homes. They loved the economic benefits of the interstate highway system. They took advantage of the G.I. bill, Social Security and Medicare. They applied for FHA mortgages and student loans. What they couldn't abide was a federal government, which attempted to dismantle separate but equal. They resisted a government mandating an integrated military. When the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed, along with the Public Accommodations Act, then President Lyndon Johnson is quoted as saying the Democrats just lost the South. Richard Nixon and the Republicans developed a "southern strategy" in which they promised not to enforce civil rights laws in return for political support. The South became solidly Red in no time.
At the same time, in the North, cities like Detroit and Chicago became the most segregated cities in the country. African-Americans, who had migrated north for jobs, didn't find much difference in attitudes. Ghettos were commonplace. Police and fire departments were all white, corporate America was white as the driven snow. Even the great American pastime, baseball, was segregated and separate. Despite a war to end slavery...despite over 600,000 Americans killed...despite almost destroying the nation...the reality remained this country is white and no others need apply. The one big difference was residents of the North were not as wedded to the romantic historic revisionism of the Civil War as those were in the South.
The 40% of Southerners, who romantically long for the glory of the Confederacy, see themselves as victims. With the ascendancy of African Americans, Hispanics and Asians, they feel left out and taken for granted. Even worse, they have no claim to superiority. They blame the federal government for their plight. However, the culture of white supremacy they long for is till singing its siren song in all parts of this nation not just in the South. Yes, we did fight to end slavery, and then we simply turned our heads and pretended not to notice a proxy system, which accomplished the same goals of slavery, under a new name.
It is romantic and acceptable to defend the Confederacy as a champion of individual and states rights. It would also be wrong. Those who display the Confederate flag on t heir license plates and hold tribute to Southern leaders annually, do so because they know they can't openly mourn the end of Jim Crow and segregation and institutional racism. The Confederacy, and its role in the Civil War, becomes a euphemism for the sorrow many whites feel about their loss of prestige and pride in the light of the Civil Rights era.
The historian, John Hope Franklin, told me until America can admit this nation was built on the principle of white supremacy, there can be no meaningful dialogue on race.
Was he right?