In 1965, as a freshman at The University of Virginia, I had the privilege of studying the American Civil War under a professor of Southern birth who was an educator who believed in the truth and not the lives of mythology.
“The South lost the war because it believed in slavery and promoted racism,” he said. “Then, after the war, it depended on its own propagandists to bury its racism under the mythology of a ‘heritage’ that did not exist.”
As a young Southern student who spent five defining years in the racist hellhole of Prince Edward County, where the Klan-controlled school board and supervisors shut down the public schools to avoid integration and opened an all-white “private” school with local government support, I despised racists.
What I later learned at Virginia stiffened my resolve to fight racism at all costs.
Now, a half-century later, James W. Loewen, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont, reinforces what I was taught at Mr. Jefferson’s university.
History is the polemics of the victor, William F. Buckley once said. Not so in the United States, at least not regarding the Civil War. As soon as the Confederates laid down their arms, some picked up their pens and began to distort what they had done and why. The resulting mythology took hold of the nation a generation later and persists — which is why a presidential candidate can suggest, as Michele Bachmann did in 2011, that slavery was somehow pro-family and why the public, per the Pew Research Center, believes that the war was fought mainly over states’ rights.
The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about. We are still digging ourselves out from under the misinformation they spread, which has manifested in our public monuments and our history books.
From my point of view, as both a Southerner by birth and a human being with a mind that inquires, the Confederate flag is nothing less than an flagrant icon of racism, bigotry, treason and hate. And, sadly, I must conclude that those who display the flag, by conscious decision or ignorance of historical reality, are racist by their actions.
All the self-serving talk about “Southern Heritage” is just talk and blather. There was no heritage, no reason and no justification for slavery, racism or hate. The states that seceded from the United States of America did so as traitors to their country, driven by nothing less than treason. They took up arms against their brothers and sisters and killed to support the right to own slaves and enslave a race they considered unworthy of rights or citizenship.
Today, too many of them still cling to their racist beliefs that African-Americans are a sub-class who do not deserve citizenship or rights. They question the citizenship of the current President of the United States, because he is half African-American, include Mexican-Americans in their hatred and bigotry and talk about the “need” for another Civil War.
Sadly, I have learned in recent weeks that some people I thought I knew are frauds who still harbor deep-ceded distrust and hatred of minorities and others with lifestyles they don’t understand.
I have gagged over their flagrant use of racial stereotypes on social media and obscenity-laced tirades that are obviously driven by hate and ignorance.
Neo-Confederates now claim that the South seceded over states’ rights. Yet when each state left the Union, its leaders made clear that they were seceding because they were for slavery and against states’ rights. In its “Declaration of the Causes Which Impel the State of Texas to Secede From the Federal Union,” for example, the secession convention of Texas listed the states that had offended the delegates: “Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa.” Governments there had exercised states’ rights by passing laws that interfered with the federal government’s attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Some no longer let slave owners “transit” across their territory with slaves. “States’ rights” were what Texas was seceding against. Texas also made clear what it was seceding for — white supremacy.
Led by Texas, the Confederacy defined itself by this written statement of purpose:
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
That, and only that, is the true “heritage” of the Confederacy.
Across the country, removing slavery from its central role in prompting the Civil War marginalizes African Americans and makes us all stupid. De-Confederatizing the United States won’t end white supremacy, but it will be a momentous step in that direction.
The Confederacy is, and should always be, defined solely for its racism, bigotry and hate.