Correcting Errors is Not Such a Bad Thing
A brief rebuttal on the misconceptions of “the flag” debate and why it matters most in the Deep South.
Racism can take root anywhere, regardless of the country or culture. Tensions between groups of people who look different can be the perfect catalyst for violence and oppression. Given that premise, why do we always focus on the Deep South when we talk about racism in the United States? Racism itself isn’t what’s unique in the Deep South, what is unique is the magnitude, organization, and brutality of discrimination. It’s the same reason 90% of citizens in industrialized countries think of Nazi Germany when they think of the word “Holocaust”. There have been other Holocausts since the 1940’s. Nazi Germany’s discrimination is remembered because it was extremely organized, lethally efficient, and widely accepted by Germany’s population of approximately 67 million people. From 1933 to 1945, 67 million people were apathetic to highly organized State institutions whose sole purpose was to subjugate and destroy an entire minority population. Stalin likely killed more people, and yet school children always remember Nazis Germany first. Of course during the Holocaust, Nazi Germany created a narrative and justification for their actions. After the Germans surrendered however, the rest of the world corrected the fiction. The concentrated effort to fix historical inaccuracies created by Nazi propaganda was necessary to correct the fantasies of psychopaths. In Germany and France, Nazi flags are outlawed. The majority of people in industrialized nations socially shun Nazis supporters from public. We do this because we have conditioned our children to be culturally opposed to Nazi sympathies.
The facts and pictures used to tell the story of Nazi Germany in school text books tells a compelling story. Every child in the United States should remember the pictures in their world history book of ghost like children patiently holding their mother’s hand waiting in line to be gassed. The next picture that follows is a picture of a human sized incinerator in Auschwitz. These pictures were common in our text books because children think in images, they relate to faces, and it’s a powerful way to see past cultural barriers and teach empathy to the future generations. The evil of mass genocide was intentionally burned into our minds at a very young age by educators. Teaching discrimination and slavery in the United States however, especially in the Deep South, is a patch work of inconsistent narratives that disconnects institutionalized terror with “Southern Heritage” and “State’s History”. Our American History books have a picture of a few Klansman, we see a burning cross, maybe a hundred year old picture of a former slave with scars on his back. Mixed with those pictures are pretty hoop skirt dresses, spacious plantations, cotton bails, and heroic depictions of battles fought under the Confederate battle flag in the Civil War. The next chapter briefly discusses Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the same breath and then boom Martin Luther King! Civil Rights is over and we move on to the Cold War.
In children’s history books catch phrases like “state’s rights” and “agrarian culture” are tossed around to offer legitimate moral reasons Confederate States seceded from the Union. As if there could be a moral justification to cause a war revolving around terrorizing black people resulting in 620,000 dead American soldiers. The approximate numbers of blacks sold and transported between 1790 and 1860 in the United States is around 835,000 human beings. There are no good estimates on the number of blacks executed, tortured to death, raped, or lynched during that time period because the South’s “peculiar institution” did not require explanation when human property was destroyed or damaged by the owner. The Southern State governments and the majority of the 9.1 million people (excluding the 3.5 million blacks) were fervently committed to enslaving and trafficking men, women, and children to the point they were willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives to preserve that practice.
In 1865, the South finally surrendered. During the years of reconstruction the institutions of Deep South discrimination and false narratives were forced underground. As soon as Reconstruction was over, Jim Crow policies sprang up across the Deep South. Again there was racial discrimination across the Union, but there is no comparison to the organization and terror implemented in the Deep South. With Jim Crow came the old narratives, symbols, and justifications for discrimination. The “glorious cause” was idolized and indoctrinated in generation after generation.
Here are some examples of some glaring differences in how white southerners and black southerners view common concepts and symbols of Deep South history (make sure you click on both links for each category):
The Confederate Flag
The 1950’s America
Besides the Deep South white narrative, we must also address some common defenses culturally implanted by Confederate defenders:
The Founding Fathers had slaves, no one hates them? Some of the Founders did own slaves and that needs to be part of the honest conversation when we talk about the roots of our Republic. Thomas Jefferson and Washington in particular struggled with their hypocrisy. In the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson condemned slavery. The Confederate States had no such conflicts. Confederate States left because they chose to start a war rather than treat blacks as human beings.
You shouldn’t erase history. True, but we have an obligation to correct blatant fiction, we do it all the time. Let’s take Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forest as examples. Robert E. Lee’s treachery to the Union cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides. The underlying purpose of this bloodshed was to insure white people’s fundamental right to own slaves and the children of slaves in perpetuity. Nathan Bedford Forest is often portrayed as a cunning daring Calvary man. Romantic Depictions of Nathan Bedford Forest
In reality, Forest was as twisted as any SS man in Nazi Germany, and we should be clear about that fact. A witness from the massacre at Ft. Pillow wrote:
The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded, negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased
– Clark, Achilles V
How many buildings, counties, schools, and streets are named after Confederate traitors? What does that say to black people who are still struggling against institutions of discrimination in the Deep South? We pick the stories our children hear, and we choose how to tell those stories. Some fictions of the “Southern Cause” need to be corrected because they are false, misleading, and disrespectful to the mass suffering and horror intentionally inflicted on a population of millions of people. It is immoral to teach our children lies that dismiss the suffering of a large minority of our population.
Liberals are offended by everything and are more concerned with political correctness than protecting constitutional rights. Deep South defenders are not committed to one political party. Currently they have found refuge in the Republican Party, specifically the Tea Party faction. Before that, they hid in the Democratic Party, specifically the Dixiecrats. This debate is not about pitting liberal and conservative ideologies against each other, it’s about correcting and thoughtfully acknowledging the State sponsored domestic terrorism that has been going on for 150 years in the Deep South. State and local governments have absolutely no business carrying on the fictional narratives. If individuals wish to fly one of the Confederate battle flags, they need to realize many will justifiably view that as akin to wearing a white hood. What is our honest gut reaction when we see the Nazi flag? Do any of us really feel that reaction is inappropriate? Many kids of the 80’s watched and loved Dukes of Hazzard, it was a fun make believe TV show. The flag looked cool on the car and Dixie would play every time they jumped across a river. That is fiction. The reality is black men, women, and children hung from trees with burning crosses and Confederate flags proudly flying below dangling feet.
We have a black president and institutional racism is dead. It’s good to see diversity in Government, but the institutions of discrimination are difficult to dismantle. During Reconstruction (1865-1877) blacks were elected to every level of government because they were protected by the Feds. When Reconstruction ended (along with Federal protections) at least 35 black elected officials were murdered by the Klan. It’s tempting to write that off to 19th century history. But the violence and intimidation continued. A few years before the land mark case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Thurgood Marshall (who eventually became the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice) won an acquittal of a black man in a Tennessee Court room. As Marshall left the small town, police pulled him over and drove him to a river bank where a large lynch mob was waiting for him. But for the heroics of Marshall’s co-counsel, the lawyer who would later argue Brown v. Board would have met his end on a bridge in Tennessee. Has it gotten better? Yes it has, but Marshall might say things in the 1950’s were better than the 1870’s. If a person needs further proof, find a county in the Deep South which has a minority population between 35%-60%. Go to any criminal court arraignment calendar in the county (doesn’t matter if it’s city court, state court, or superior court). Bring a calculator. Look at who’s sitting in the courtroom and crunch the numbers. It is not unusual to see minority defendants make up 90% to 95% percent of the calendar. You can have a black judge and prosecutor and the numbers are the same. That’s institutionalized discrimination, one individual can’t even identify where it’s coming from let alone stop it.
This is my heritage, my family proudly fought for the South. My grandfather’s grandfather fought in the Battle of Atlanta for the Confederacy. There’s nothing wrong with telling people your family history, but it’s important to be honest about that history. It’s difficult to paint ancestors and local heroes as racists because that characteristic overwhelms our memory. But maybe it’s time we started valuing others besides Johnny Reb? Many Quakers were hung because they refused to fight for the South. Where’s their monuments? There are few if any. Honorable Christian people who opposed slavery and violence died for their convictions, they don’t get monuments in the Deep South. Even today, they are silently viewed as cowards by many.
We laugh uncomfortably as small town locals point to bronze Confederate Soldiers saluting with their left hand while facing North (military equivalent to giving someone the bird). We hear the word “liberal” and “politically correct” spit out like curse words to anyone challenging the established narratives of Deep South heritage and pretend that’s a reasonable position. The Confederate fiction has gone on for 150 years. The recent events in South Carolina have given us a bipartisan opportunity to end the historical inaccuracies once and for all. The flag debate isn’t just about a piece of fabric. It’s about finally ending terror and discrimination hiding behind a make believe culture in the Deep South.