I grew up in the Deep South. In fact, I was raised in South Carolina—the very state that started the Civil War. South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, and on April 12, 1861, the South Carolina Militia began a bombardment of Fort Sumter. Thus began our nation’s costliest war. One out of ten men of military age died in that war. I was born 83 years after the war ended, but in many ways, the South was still under the shadow of that tragic conflagration. My high school history teacher referred to the Civil War as the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression. American history books used in South Carolina classrooms were editions that were sympathetic to Southern prejudices and perspectives.
According to past Southern propaganda, the War Between the States was fought over the issue of states’ rights. The issue of slavery was pushed into the background. Politicians like Strom Thurmond and James Eastland continued to use this lame argument as they insisted that states’ rights was the real reason they were opposed to Civil Rights legislation. They maintained that the Federal government had no authority to demand states to provide equal rights and opportunities to those within its borders.
This revision of history also perpetuated the myth of a glorious defeat of the Confederate armies by those “damn Yankees.” Southern women played their part in this new version of courageous Southern men defending their homelands, the sanctity of Southern belles, and a nostalgic way of life (Daughters of the Confederacy). The sacrifices of Southern soldiers were solemnly recognized and promises were made never to forget these costly dedications to preserve a cherished civilization that had “gone with the wind.” Statues were erected. Monuments were built. The song “Dixie” was played by high school bands at football games. Confederate flags were raised and even incorporated into the flags of some Southern states. Some people even vowed that “the South will rise again!” And this perpetuation of the myth of a noble defeat helped to justify racism, Jim Crow, segregation, the hypocritical “separate but equal” solution, chain gangs, KKK terrorism, voter suppression, police brutality, and economic oppression.
History, however, reveals the true cause of the Civil War. Here is a quote given in 1861 by Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America. In this speech, he was defending the Confederate Constitution.
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, it’s cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
The Civil War was never about states’ rights. It was always about slavery and racism. The subsequent history of racism in the South is the tragic and sinful legacy of a disgraceful era in American history. No defense can be given for the evil institution of slavery or racial bigotry. The weak argument that our ancestors were people of their time and did not know any better is “null and void” when we remember that Quakers, free Blacks, Abolitionists, and some courageous Christians recognized and opposed slavery and racism. The total population of the Confederate states at the beginning of the Civil War was 9,103,332. There were 3,521,110 African American slaves in the South—38.67% of the total population. Any one of those slaves could have told their masters of the horrific suffering and demonic evils of slavery. And perhaps most importantly of all, those Whites living in the “Bible Belt” had the words and example of Jesus. Anyone with a conscience and the ability to reflect would realize that the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” could never justify such an evil institution as slavery. It was not a matter of “being a people of their time” that kept Southerners from realizing the immorality of slavery. It was intentional blindness, greed, and cruelty which maintained such a monstrous system.
There was nothing noble about the Civil War. It was the result of a society hellbent on continuing a way of life that was rotten to the core. Those statues and monuments—that flag which glorifies a treasonous culture—and that song “Dixie” which continues to foster an unworthy consciousness in people shackled by prejudice—they all need to disappear for one simple reason: their continual presence perpetuates the myth of a past glory that has brought about far too much pain and injustice.
Symbols have an inherent power to persuade and to reinforce what they represent. And these symbols represent a reprehensible and lingering part of American history that is and always has been threatening to people of color. Of course, along with that final dismantling of symbols of racism, we all need to repent of our own complicity in the Original Sin of America. But we need to recognize that maintaining and honoring symbols of an illusionary and wicked past render such repentance difficult if not impossible.