A racist past should be acknowledged and confronted, not glossed over and celebrated
The American Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865, between forces of the Union, represented by northern states, and the Confederacy, represented by states from the south with economies that relied on slavery. The Confederacy was defeated, slavery was abolished in the United States, African Americans were given equal rights through the Fourteenth Amendment, and that’s where the sorry saga should have ended.
Instead, the American South refused to accept a new order where a master’s former slave was now legally his equal. The Ku Klux Klan exploded into life, and blacks in the South were disenfranchised and terrorised. As part of the justification of this reassertion of white supremacy, the former Confederacy was mythologised. What was a war over the right for white men to own black people was reinterpreted as a war over a state’s right to self-determination.
As the federal government gave up on Reconstruction statues and busts of Confederate figures were sculpted across the South. Symbols of the Confederacy were incorporated into state flags, and remain in five across the South from Arkansas to Florida. Jackson, Mississippi is a city with a 79% African American demographic. In the centre of the city is the state capitol, flying the last remaining state flag to contain the infamous Stars and Bars battle emblem.
The idea of equality promised to African Americans by the federal government in 1868 was finally forced upon the Southern states following the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But the Confederate symbolism didn’t just fade away. In 2017 it remains prominently placed on both personal property throughout the United States, and in state buildings across the South. The legality of racism may have been dissembled, but the message put forth to minorities by the continuation of the Conferate ideal are toxic reminders of an ugly, racist history seeping into the present.
The Daughters of the Confederacy was founded in 1894, and exists to this day funding activities such as scholarships to those who can prove lineage from Confederate soldiers. This group was effective in the early twentieth century of promoting an idealistic view of the American Civil War, one most famously reflected in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. Statues and monoliths funded by the Daughters were erected outside state capitols from Austin to Atlanta.
As well as general platitudes, effort was made by state legislatures to venerate specific figures. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate officer who would become Governor of Tennessee, and is honoured with a bust at the state capitol building. Such salient facts as the massacre of surrendering African American soldiers by forces under his command at Fort Pillow, and his going on to become a founding figure in the KKK, are not to be seen.
Strom Thurmond was a segregationist Democrat who held the longest filibuster in Senate history in protest of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. His resulting switch to the Republican party in 1964 symbolised the GOP’s transition from an anti-slavery platform to the party of racialised gerrymandering and KKK endorsement. A walk through the city of Charleston, South Carolina can lead you off Calhoun Street, named for the politician who was in many ways the architect of the Civil War, and up to the Strom Thurmond Research Building on the MUSC campus.
Efforts to take down statues that were built after the Civil War in an attempt to justify segregation and reassert white supremacy have become a political flashpoint across the South. After many years of campaigning by activist groups, in May this year four Confederate statues in New Orleans were disassembled, late at night and under heavy security. A KKK rally over the removal of a General Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia this month drew around 50 members and an estimated 1000 counter-protesters.
Fears over a Stalinist washout of Confederate history should be abated through placing the war in a historical context, yet acknowledging the profound racism at its core. Statues should not be destroyed, but placed in educational environments as a reframing of the currently uncritical lens in which the Confederacy is viewed across swathes of the US.
Nor should any movement to combat the last vestiges of the Confederacy be conflated with the role of slave owners in US history. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were extensive slave-owners, and also seminal figures in American history whose political and military prowess preserved and expanded the Union. A figure such as Jefferson Davis presided only over a failure to protect slavery and tear apart the United States, and the only reason to celebrate him and the Confederacy he heralded is to promote a racist worldview under the veneer of celebrating statehood.
The removal of state sanctioned celebrations of the Confederacy would only be a beginning and one that would inflame many with a misplaced pride and historical perspective. Such cultural moments as the recently commissioned ‘Confederate’ from the makers of Game of Thrones will at least ignite discussion. However, any shift away from the Stars and Bars being flown by people from Oregon to South Dakota would be glacial, and would require a long hard look at the racism of both the Confederacy and the ingrained racial attitudes of America today.