It has been 152 years since the end of the civil war. In relation to recorded world history, that is like last week. The wounds are obviously deep and the scar tissue is painful. As you travel through the south and spend any amount of time, you have a strong sense of the cultural and historical pride and resentment that exists amongst the people who have inhabited the southern states for generations.
There are statues dedicated to Civil War heroes, street names, parks and buildings bearing the names of the heroes of the Confederacy. This has become a focal point for a broader discussion about the state of race relations and progress being made to achieve equality for all Americans. And although any discussion of slavery and racism focuses on African-Americans for the most part, the present reality encompasses all people of color including Hispanics and Muslims especially those of Middle Eastern descent.
The current dialogue, if it can be described as dialogue, is centered around racism and slavery. One cannot over-emphasize the role of slavery as a catalyst for the Civil War or the impact that the institution has had over the last four hundred years including generations of poverty and illiteracy despite the fact that many have broken the cycle.
It would also be ignorant to overlook the terrible persecution and discrimination that existed post – Civil War before and throughout the Jim Crow era and still exists institutionally today. From 1865-1965 racism and terrorism were formalized mostly through the KKK who were quietly supported and feared by their neighbors and local law enforcement. Cross burnings and lynchings were almost common place in the South with no justice or protection for people of color.
Some would argue that the racism and terror has morphed into a more formal and open form demonstrated by some police officers, and in some cases, some police departments through lack of training and policy enforcement. It is readily apparent that in many areas, especially urban areas across the country, people of color are guilty until proven innocent and excessive force is the norm when it comes to these individuals.
This is both the context and impetus for the hyper-focus among northerners and progressives concerning the statues, streets and buildings named after famous Confederates. Some would argue that the existence of these visual reminders of a different south and should remain to paint a picture of a South that is to be left in the past and never to be revisited. Obviously, that is a hard argument for some to swallow. The pain and anguish suffered by many is a difficult filter.
The South is a different place than existed even fifty years ago. Jim Crow was forced into submission by the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1965. President Johnson may have been vilified by many for his role in the escalation of the Vietnam War, and rightfully so. But fairness demands that he be celebrated as well for his role in federally legislating rights for all Americans and the beginning of a change in Southern culture. Evidence exists that race relations have improved for a majority of Southerners. African-Americans are clearly better represented in local, state and federal government.
Bill Clinton assumed the Governor’s role in Arkansas, and in Little Rock, the place where 23 years earlier nine courageous African-American teenagers braved daily torment to integrate Central High School. Some white people must have voted for the man that Toni Morrison joked was our first black president. Just 23 years later.
In 1990 Doug Wilder, an African-American, was voted the 66th Governor of Virginia, the capitol of the Confederacy. He had to have some white supporters.
The point is that not everyone who has emotional ties to the Confederacy is motivated by race or fond memories of slavery. Lost in the discussion is the economic, cultural and psychological damage done to the South as a result of their devastating defeat. We cannot forget Sherman’s march to the sea and the path of destruction that was left. He not only burned Atlanta and Savannah. His strategy called for pillaging the country-side to supply his army so they could move quickly and efficiently without a need for supply lines to replenish them. The intent was also to terrorize the people. The people who lived in the surrounding areas were depleted of all food and supplies and their homes and farms were destroyed.
Much of the South was a burnt-out husk following the war. Reconstruction followed with the insurgence of carpetbaggers from the North intent on profiting off the backs of regular Southerners trying to pick up the pieces. Resentment and bitterness were only natural.
For whatever fault bore by the politicians, plantation owners and generals, there were many regular people who were devastated by the war. People who lost fathers, brothers and sons to a war that really had little to do with their way of life and more to do with those who had money and land and were slave-owners. Is that not the way of most wars? The poor and uneducated fight and die to protect the property and opportunity for the rich.
Is it at least possible that for some Southerners, maybe more than we care to acknowledge, tearing down their statues and erasing the Confederacy is more an assault on their cultural identity than an assault on the ideas of racism and slavery. Maybe it means destroying the sacrifice their ancestors made whether the sacrifice was made for a legitimate purpose or not. Loss is loss. Embarrassment and degradation are embarrassment and degradation.
Maybe most people in the South feel like the assault has begun again. Can the suffering of many Southerners after the Civil War be equated with the suffering of millions of slaves and what they endured. Unequivocally no. Must they be equated? Is this always a zero-sum game?
It is a shame that we seem incapable of having more complex and nuanced discussions about complex issues. We are forced to simplify and identify the enemy with no effort to listen and understand. This is not to suggest that some ideas are just evil and wrong. There are many. Racism and the idea of white supremacy are wrong without argument. There is no way to look at slavery and find redemption. We need to learn to listen and discern the difference between an alternate viewpoint and an idea that should be dismissed out of hand and exposed for the damage it could do. The less we are able to discern the difference, the stronger the divide.