“Our new government’s foundations are laid, its 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 normal condition.” — Alexander Stephens, Vice President, The Confederate States of America
During the height of the Japanese occupation of the Pacific during WW II, there were tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers scattered over literally thousands of tiny islands. Eventually, the war would end. But since these survivors had no way of knowing, they continued living as if the war was still being fought, maintaining military protocol, totally isolated, yearning for the day when they would be reunited with their command.
This situation reminds me of the neo-Confederates of today, clamoring for a celebration of the Confederacy and evoking its symbolism. Well, not really. After all, the poor lost Japanese soldiers had a legitimate excuse for their ignorance: forces beyond their control isolated them from civilization. It seems that our neo-confederate bigots have managed to isolate themselves…
In an editorial for the New York Times about Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell’s decision to proclaim April “Confederate History Month,” Jon Meacham makes a compelling case that inextricably links the celebration of the Confederacy to racism.
McDonnell’s proclamation doesn’t seem problematic at first glance. In it, McDonnell recognizes individuals “who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth” and “the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War.” Okay… sounds good… but what about slavery?
Mentions of the “peculiar institution” were nowhere to be found in the proclamation until complaints from the public caused McDonnell to make some reference to it. The governor explained his omission by arguing that in the proclamation he focused on the aspects of the Civil War he thought “most significant for Virginia.”
Meacham wrote of McDonnell’s reasoning, “It seems to follow that, at least for Mr. McDonnell, the plight of Virginia’s slaves does not rank among the most significant aspects of the war.” This was later reinforced by another neo-confederate southern politician, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who shamelessly asserted that slavery was “just a nit” in history and shouldn’t prevent us from honoring the many men who fought for slavery.
But that’s not Meacham’s sole objection to the idea of Confederate History Month. He argues persuasively that historical patterns indicate that the Confederacy is most often celebrated during times of racial tension.
It is informative that the right’s neo-Confederates, like the poor lost Japanese soldiers of WWII, are still “fighting the Civil War in 2010,” Meacham asserts. Whitewashing the war is one way for the warped right — alienated and angry about the president, health care reform, and all manner of imaginary threats — to express its discomfort with an African American President and a multicultural society, disguising hate as heritage.
If you need more convincing, Meacham points to how white supremacists managed to gain support for legalized segregation in the late 1800s by using Confederate symbols. During this period, Mississippi went so far as to include the Confederate battle emblem on its flag. After the Supreme Court legitimized segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Confederate imagery was no longer used to rally Southerners, as the cause had been won: Jim Crow was legal.
After that, Meacham explains, only the most extreme white supremacists used Confederate symbols — the Ku Klux Klan. I would add that the Confederate flag is the symbol of choice for almost all white militia groups (with the Nazi flag running a close second).
When the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1950s, however, use of the rebel flag and other Confederate symbolism spread among the general public once again. In 1948, for example, supporters of staunch segregationist Strom Thurmond waved the battle flag at campaign stops. Furthermore, during the movement to racially integrate schools in the 1950s and ’60s, Georgia changed its flag to include the battle emblem, and South Carolina hoisted the colors over its Capitol as part of its centennial celebrations of the war.
Overall, these points convincingly support Meacham’s contention that “Confederate symbols have tended to be more about white resistance to black advances than about commemoration.” That said, Meacham argues that it is impossible to claim that celebration of the Confederacy is simply about states’ rights and not about slavery. Excluding slavery from the discussion is an egregious error because it misleads the public about the reality of the Civil War.
“If the slaves are erased from the picture, then what took place between Sumter and Appomattox is not about the fate of human chattel, or a battle between good and evil,” Meacham states. “We cannot allow the story of the emancipation of a people and the expiation of America’s original sin to become fodder for conservative politicians playing to their right-wing base.”
Southern pride my ass