Shortly after I posted Part Two of this essay, the Charleston murders occurred. Then came the debate over the Confederate flag and the predictable Republican rants that the South had fought the Civil War primarily over the question of state’s rights (which, I argue, it won on that question), not over slavery (it won on that one as well). Yes, there has been some good news this week, but we should be aware of the larger picture. As America looked at itself, arsonists burned seven African-American churches.
I’m adding Part Three because I’ve realized that the South won the war in yet another category, one that it could only have imagined after the surrender at Appomattox. It won the war of memory.
James Loewen makes this argument in his essay, “Why Do People Believe Myths About the Confederacy? Because our Textbooks and Monuments are Wrong”:
The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about. We are still digging ourselves out from under the misinformation they spread…
Neo-Confederates achieved their mythologizing through generations of literature (think Gone With the Wind), films (think Birth of a Nation), newspaper editorials, religious sermons and hundreds of public monuments that “flatly lied about the Confederate cause.” And they named thousands of schools, courthouses and streets after their heroes. Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church is located on Calhoun Street, named after one of the most famous defenders of slavery. Indeed, they managed to rename the war itself, calling it the “War Between the States,” one of the primary ways to refer to the war up to the middle of the 20th century.
The federal government aided this process of memorialization:
The dean of the Washington National Cathedral has noted that some of its stained-glass windows memorialize Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. There’s a statue of Albert Pike, Confederate general and reputed leader of the Arkansas Ku Klux Klan, in Judiciary Square…The Army runs Fort A.P. Hill, named for a Confederate general whose men killed African American soldiers after they surrendered…Fort Bragg…Fort Benning…
How about the process of becoming an American citizen and its American History test?
Item No. 74 asks them to “name one problem that led to the Civil War.” It then gives three acceptable answers: slavery, economic reasons and states’ rights. (No other question on this 100-item test has more than one right answer.) If by “economic reasons” it means issues with tariffs and taxes, which most people infer, then two of its three “correct answers” are wrong.
Finally, Loewens mentions public education, such as The American Journey, “…perhaps the best-selling U.S. history textbook.” And here is where we can ask once again, Cui bono? (Who profits?): “Publishers mystify secession because they don’t want to offend Southern school districts and thereby lose sales.” And most states follow the example of the second-largest school textbook market, Texas. Owing to economies of scale, some 50%-80% of American high school students read history textbooks that do not mention the Crusades or the New Deal, and science textbooks that challenge evolution and global warming. The Washington post reports:
Five million public school students in Texas will begin using new social studies textbooks this fall based on state academic standards that barely address racial segregation. The state’s guidelines for teaching American history also do not mention the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws…And when it comes to the Civil War, children are supposed to learn that the conflict was caused by “sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery” — written deliberately in that order to telegraph slavery’s secondary role in driving the conflict, according to some members of the state board of education.
Of course the war was fought primarily over slavery, and Loewen provides quotes to that effect by most of the leading Confederates. Indeed, he shows that most pro-slavers were adamantly opposed to state’s rights at the time:
…when each state left the Union, its leaders made clear that they were seceding because they were for slavery and against states’ rights.
But due to over a century of disinformation and mythologizing, nearly half of Americans – and 60% of people under age thirty – believe that the primary cause of secession was state’s rights. This deliberate construction of ignorance “…marginalizes African Americans and makes us all stupid…”
And today, while the South Carolina legislature is voting whether to take down the Confederate flag (which they had only raised in the 1960s to protest Civil Rights legislation) most Americans (including 78% of Republicans) still view it as “a symbol of Southern pride” rather than “a symbol of racism.”
But let’s stop beating around the bush. In practical terms, the Confederate flag now symbolizes both states rights and racism, as well as a host of other reactionary positions.
Why is this important? Because even though in 1860 state’s rights was not a major issue, in 2015 it is. Ask any resident of a Red State hoping for a living wage or an abortion or federal health insurance or medical marijuana or equal employment rights for gays. Ask any African-American. Ask Dylann Roof.