Has the South risen again? – Revisited

When I was a boy growing up in Alva, Oklahoma, I often heard people say, ” The South shall rise again.” I was vaguely aware that there was some pro-Confederacy sentiment in town but my parents always taught me that slavery was wrong. There were literally no Black people in town so the corollary issue of racism never came up to me as a child. I learned from my mother that her grandfather, Edmund Robbins Mabie, had fought for the Union and was in Sherman’s famous march to the sea through Georgia. The family still has his war diary. On my father’s side, Simeon Ikins, my great-granduncle, fighting in a New York regiment, was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg by the Confederate cannonade preceding Pickett’s Charge. During the 1860s my Baird ancestors lived in Indiana and did not participate in the war though they were staunchly anti-slavery. So, I had a thoroughly pro-Union upbringing.

Five years ago the Confederate Heritage Trust in Charleston, South Carolina, sponsored a ball to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the secession of South Carolina from the Union in 1860, the first state to do so. The organizers of the ball said that they held it to honor the Southern men who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their vision of states’ rights. This is a common Southern misrepresentation of what the Civil War, or War of Northern Aggression, as southerners sometimes call it, was about. The States’ Right that was in question was the right to own slaves. All the documents of secession of all the states that seceded mention slavery front and center. All other reasons for secession that have subsequently been put forward by Southern apologists derive from the issue of slavery. How worthy of honor was this vision of states’ rights?

The White folks of antebellum South Carolina were very serious about preserving slavery. On December 17, 1841, the South Carolina legislature passed “An Act to Prevent the Emancipation of Slaves.” This law forbade any owner from emancipating his slaves. It became a criminal act to send slaves out of the state for the purpose of emancipation. Likewise one could not emancipate his slaves through “bequest, deed of trust, or conveyance.” This to me is an ironic interference by the state in the private property rights of individuals. Even the Bible, which clearly condones slavery, provides rules for emancipation. In South Carolina the state treasury would compensate owners for their loss if they killed slaves when they were punishing them for trying to escape. The Bible basically says that if an owner kills his slave, he has cost himself his own money. The 21st chapter of Exodus lays out the rules. The South Carolina law showed an interesting disregard for the Word of the Lord. In South Carolina the punishments given slaves who had attempted to escape escalated from 40 lashes, to cutting off ears, castration, branding, cutting the Achilles tendon, and death. South Carolinians were clearly willing to do essentially anything to maintain the institution of slavery, now sometimes referred to as “the peculiar institution” and in Texas schoolbooks, “The Triangular Trade.” (The triangle refers to Europe, Africa, and America.) Next, in 1860 the South Carolina Legislature passed the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” Again it mentioned the rights of the “Slaveholding States” and referred to escaped slaves as “fugitives from justice.” Finally South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and the Civil War began. After the war some slaveholders still had to be forced by the Union army to free their slaves.

All through the 20th century the United States, to its embarrassment, endured the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws in the South, school segregation, denial of extending the right to vote to colored people, (in spite of the XVth Amendment) and, more recently, various new rules about registering to vote that effectively suppress the Black vote in what we call “Red States.” Then Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in November, 2008.

In 2009, then Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina said of President Obama, “We will break him.” DeMint later said he meant “We will break his momentum,” but he was not discussing physics and not discussing Newton’s laws of motion when he made his original statement. Senator DeMint (now President of the Heritage Foundation) had more or less appointed himself head of the Tea Party movement, a loose amalgamation of malcontents who are basically opposed to taxes, with or without representation, and opposed to government regulations and government spending except when they personally and directly benefit. The purpose of the Tea Party seems to be to undo all progressive legislation of the 21st, 20th, and 19th centuries and, perhaps, before. Rand Paul, Junior Senator from Kentucky and current Presidential Candidate, has said that he doesn’t think the federal government should enforce civil rights laws on private businesses. He has since “walked this back.” Though not necessarily members of the Tea Party movement, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican, Kentucky, the Minority Leader, and conservative Senators, largely from the South, have opposed essentially every proposal that President Obama has made. Indeed Senator McConnell said that his number one agenda item in 2009 was to see that President Obama was a one term President. Was this really the most pressing of the problems faced by our country? To further illustrate the single minded, or perhaps mindless, opposition of these men to the President, on December 22, 2009, the Senate UNANIMOUSLY passed an act to grant financial relief to New York’s 9-11 responders, an act that Senator McConnell had filibustered up until then. I believe that one can reasonably conclude that he had just been being as obstructive as possible since he obviously was not opposed to the bill. In the end, this was a bill that no one could reasonably vote against and Senator McConnell relented and allowed a vote. What about Senators DeMint and McConnell or about President Obama could make these Senators so adamantly opposed to everything the President proposes? Could it have been skin color?

Even more disgustingly we had Congressman Joe Wilson, again of South Carolina, who shouted, “You lie!” at President Obama during his first State of the Union Address. Such an outburst had not occurred in recent memory though they were common before the Civil War. The President had stated that his proposed legislation to reform health care would not subsidize illegal aliens. Joe Wilson said that it would. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said that it would not. Newspapers printing the bill’s wording showed that it would not. Several years’ experience has shown that it does not. Congressman Wilson later said that his outburst was “spontaneous” and he called the White House to apologize for his “inappropriate and regrettable” comment. Southern gentlemen are often credited with courtly manners and conduct. Did lingering racism bubble up “spontaneously” in Congressman Wilson to overwhelm his courtliness when confronted with the fact that a Black man was now President of the United States and was threatening to have his vision of America trump that of the Old South? (His constituency was not particularly bothered by his spontaneity. Congressman Wilson has been easily re-elected.) Does the same problem drive the otherwise seemingly inexplicable obstructionism of Senators DeMint, McConnell, their constituents, and an unfortunately large percentage of Republican legislators in Congress and in the states? It is now 2015 and it continues.

Seven southern states still fly the Confederate Battle Flag over or near their state capitol buildings. Republican politicians are tying themselves in knots to know what to say about this. Simply put, the Confederate Battle Flag stands for slavery and insurrection against the United States of America. The preservation of slavery was the reason for the insurrection. Senator Lindsey Graham, also a candidate for President, when asked whether or not South Carolina should take its Confederate Battle Flag down, acknowledged that some people regarded the flag as “a racist symbol, ” then went on to note, “….it is part of who we are.” Senator Graham is right although I’m twisting his words. This racist symbol is part of who a lot of White Southerners still are.

What honor is there in any of this? Even if God condoned slavery in the Torah, in the subsequent 2,500 years Western Civilization has slowly and very painfully improved on God’s vision of morality. We have made slavery illegal after spending 600,000 lives in a murderous internecine war. In 1954 the Supreme Court made segregation in the public schools illegal, again over the protestations of the South, which again pleaded States’ Rights. President Eisenhower had to send in the National Guard to ensure compliance. Over fifty years later, we still have piles of evidence that racism is alive, and unfortunately, well, and not only in the South. De facto segregation can be seen everywhere and “White flight” in response to threatened or actual integration is a common phenomenon. Now we need to make racism unconscionable. It was the stated motive of Darren Roof who murdered nine Black people at Bible study in South Carolina’s most famous Black church. Where could he have learned his poisonous hatred? Most Republican office seekers are afraid to acknowledge that racism is alive and well in a significant percentage of their “base.” Who among them will have the guts to tell the truth and condemn racism? Who among them will display the honor and fortitude to lead these people from darkness to light? From the time that the part of the Bible supporting slavery was written, it took about 2,500 years to make slavery illegal in the United States. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take another 2,500 years to eradicate racism and the hold it has on the “social conservative” base of the Republican party.