Shocking though it was, the recent tragedy in South Carolina is nothing new. The history of race relations in the South is synonymous with terrorism. But, though the murder of those innocent victims in Charleston has much to do with the past, it is more an indictment of our present, and the systemic failure of the United States to honestly confront our shared history. By so doing we have allowed lies to fester, the most pernicious of which is the idea that there is anything at all to be celebrated about the Confederacy. Whether they do it of ignorance or malice, those who speak of the Confederacy and its symbols as a positive remembrance of the “ancestors and the traditions of their states” are engaged in perpetuating the intractable lie that the Confederacy and its “southern heritage” is in anyway separable from the great evil of slavery.
The heart of this myth is the so called lost cause of the South. It was memorably evoked in Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation, both of which advanced the idea that the defenders of the Confederacy were brave patriots poised against the tyrannical oppression of a northern behemoth. This myth incorrectly positions the Civil War as a contest over abstract ideology, fought by the South in the interest of preserving rights rather than denying them. In short, it seeks sympathy for those traitors who looked to kill other Americans so as to defend their presumed right to own people as property. Of course, should sympathy be found, that second part must be ignored. What follows then is a battle over names. It is one which is fought over an intellectual space wherein the privilege of naming is the power to elevate “one dimension of a complex reality at the expense of others.”[i] Control of a name is control of a narrative is control of fact. The myth of the lost cause of the South lives in the twisted meaning of names such as the War of Northern Aggression, or The Second American Revolution. It demands that there be a cause of war within which justice can be found, and it cannot therefore accept the fact that the Civil War was fought over slavery.
But it was, and undeniably so. Shall we list the ways? The following are but a few, but are nonetheless representative of the sentiments which motivated southern secession and the subsequent war. It was a war which was fought entirely in defense of the institution of slavery.
Drafted over a hundred and fifty years ago in Charleston, South Carolina, this document was the instrument through which the government of the state attempted to explain and justify their secession. In enumerating their causes for concern, they turn again and again to the hostility of the northern states to the institution of slavery, complaining especially that freemen are being insufficiently helpful in returning enslaved men to servitude. They complain that the north considers the institution of slavery to be sinful. They worry that they will be denied in the future their supposed right to own other human beings as property. Notice throughout, how they feel aggrieved that their might be a transgression made against their property, property which is in fact a living, breathing human being. They felt this to be a serious enough cause to go to war for.
“The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution…
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions [slavery]; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; [to wit: the right to own people as property] they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”
Drafted to declare the secession of Alabama from the United States of America, this document makes special note of the position of slavery in contemporary southern society. While otherwise replete with the protections of law defending the natural rights of man and citizen as can be found in the Constitution of the United States, Alabama does not extend the same privilege to its enslaved black citizens. Instead it simply notes that “No slave in this State shall be emancipated by any act done to take effect in this State, or any other country.”
Again, straight to the point. Tucked alongside the structure of democracy which the constitution claimed to protect is the simple statement that “no bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed,” thereby forever denying the right of an entire class of people to participate in their democracy.
Thus, when in the modern day someone adopts the symbol of the hateful institution of slavery — which the battle flag of the Confederacy certainly is – as their own, they are signaling at least acquiescence to the contemptable racism which sustained it. Though their motive is their own, and they may hold the belief of a brighter heritage to be celebrated, the battle flag of the Confederacy is impossible to separate from support of slavery. It was flown in war in defense of such, and in peace by the terroristic members of the Ku Klux Klan who sought to again subordinate the black population of their states. It cannot be seen separately from the racism which engendered its creation. That this must be said over a hundred and fifty years later is our failing. All should take to heart the words of Charles Morgan Jr. in the wake of the Birmingham Church bombing. Standing before a group of his peers he said: “…every citizen who votes for the candidate with the bloody flag, every citizen and every school board member and schoolteacher and principal and businessman and judge and lawyer who has corrupted the minds of our youth; every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred, is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb..” Similarly for those who stood by while hateful ideology festered in the mind of Dylann Storm Roof. It must be confronted with the truth at every turn, beginning with the truth that the symbols of the Confederacy offer us nothing beyond hate.
[i] Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 15.