Racism Trumps Nostalgia, Parts 7-9

Seven:  The Southern Mythos, Part 1: The “Lost Cause” & States’ Rights Myths

In November, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee laid what would be the foundation upon which Confederate apologists would construct a Southern mythology now known as the “Lost Cause” myth.  In a letter to Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, Lee wrote, “My only object is to transmit, if possible, the truth to posterity, and do justice to our brave soldiers.”

The “Lost Cause” myth was born in 1866 with the publication of Southern historian Edward A. Pollard’s The Lost Cause: New Southern History of the War of the Confederates.  In his work, Pollard argued that secession was a necessary step toward the preservation of the state’s right to sovereignty without any influence from the federal government.  Pollard’s ultimate goal, however, was to present the South in a softer light:

Slavery established in the South a peculiar, and noble type of civilization. It was not without attendant vices; but the virtues which followed in its train were numerous and peculiar, and asserted the general good effect of the institution on the ideas and manners of the South. If habits of command sometimes degenerated into cruelty and insolence; yet, in the greater number of instances, they inculcated notions of chivalry, polished the manners and produced many noble and generous virtues. If the relief of a large class of whites from the demands of physical labour gave occasion in some instances for idle and dissolute lives, yet at the same time it afforded opportunity for extraordinary culture, elevated the standards of scholarship in the South, enlarged and emancipated social intercourse, and established schools of individual refinement. The South had an element in its society–a landed gentry–which the North envied, and for which its substitute was a course ostentatious aristocracy that smelt of the trade, and that, however it cleansed itself and aped the elegance of the South, and packed its houses with fine furniture, could never entirely subdue a sneaking sense of its inferiority; and every close observer of Northern society has discovered how there lurked in every form of hostiltiy to the South the conviction that the Northern man, however disguised with ostentation, was course and inferiour in comparison with the aristocracy and chivalry of the South.

He, like all “Lost Cause” proponents, revised history in order to stock the South’s skeletons in a closet, downplaying the role that slavery played.  To Pollard, revisionism was the only way to reclaim a Southern cultural identity in the wake of a devastating loss.  He omitted the immorality of slavery practices from his historical accounts—a move that made it much, much easier to claim that the Civil War was a battle for states’ rights.  He even went so far as to claim that the Confederates were in fact protecting black slaves from Northern hostility and aggression.

Although Pollard’s works failed to create a sizeable niche within the Southern mainstream.  However, Virginia Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early managed to do exactly that.  Jubal, like Pollard, romanticized and revised history in an attempt to depict the South in a better light.  In 1866, he wrote A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America, which painted the Northern states as bully states that trampled on civil liberties.  He heavily implied that the Southern states were mere victims of the North’s cruel tyranny.  In the book, Early complete omitted any reference to slavery or its institution.

Early’s real claim to fame, however, came in 1876 when he began contributing to Southern Historical Society Papers.  His essays became extremely popular and helped push the “Lost Cause” myth forward and straight into the Southern mainstream.  Notably, Early’s depiction of Robert E. Lee was greatly exaggerated, making Lee seem like a far greater and capable leader than he actually was.  Early’s writings about Lee would become the foundation from which Southerners, especially Civil War veterans and Confederate apologists, would turn Lee into a mythical cult of personality.  In his writings, Early would also downplay the blatant racism of the Confederacy and implicitly gave a defense for the South’s cause for secession without actually acknowledging the institution of slavery and the primary role it played in the states’ declarations of secession. These myths were solidified with the posthumous release of Early’s Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between States in 1912, a book in which Early continues his argument that slaves were treated well, the Union was tyrannical, and the Confederacy fought for states’ rights and not to preserve slavery.

Many Southerners and Confederate sympathizers knew the claims of Early and Pollard were simply untrue.  In 1864, one year before the Civil War ended, the editors of Southern Punch explicitly stated the true Confederate aim with secession and war:

“The people of the South,” says a contemporary, “are not fighting for slavery but for independence.” Let us look into this matter.  It is an easy task, we think, to show up this new-fangled heresy—a heresy calculated to do us no good, for it cannot deceive foreign statesmen nor peoples, nor mislead any one here in Yankeeland…Our doctrine is this:  WE ARE FIGHTING FOR INDEPENDENCE HAT OUR GREAT AND NECESSARY DOMESTIC INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY SHALL BE PRESERVED, and for the preservation of other institutions of which slavery is the groundwork.

It could be said that Pollard’s writings were ignored because Southerners knew exactly why they sought independence from the Union—namely, that they all knew it was about slavery and not simply states’ rights.  Even after the wide acceptance of Early’s writings, many Confederate apologists and sympathizers publicly stated that the intent was to preserve slavery.

Confederate commander Col. John S. Mosby wrote Sam Chapman in 1907:

If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of Slavery. South Carolina went to war – as she said in her Secession proclamation – because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding. . . . I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery – a soldier fights for his country – right or wrong – he is not responsible for the political merits of the cause he fights in. The South was my country.

Mississippi Representative (and future Senator) John Sharp Williams, explicitly acknowledging slavery and white equality as the main causes of secession and the Civil War, wrote in an article for Confederate Veteran, the official publication of the United Confederate Veterans, in 1904:

But there was something else, and even a greater cause than local self-government, for which we fought. Local self-government temporarily destroyed may be recovered and ultimately retained. The other thing for which we fought is so complex in its composition, so delicate in its breath, so incomparable in its symmetry, that, being once destroyed, it is forever destroyed. This other thing for which we fought was the supremacy of the white man’s civilization in the country which he proudly claimed his own; “in the land which the Lord his God had given him;” founded upon the white man’s code of ethics, in sympathy with the white man’s tra­ditions and ideals. Our forefathers of the forties and fifties and sixties believed that if slavery were abolished, unless the black race were deported from the American States, there would result in the Southern States just such a condition of things as had resulted in San Domingo, in the other West Indies Islands, and in the so-called republics of Central and South America—namely, a hybridization of races, a lowering of the ethical standard, and a degradation, if not loss, of civ­ilization. . . . Slavery is lost, and it is certainly well for us and the public—perhaps for the negro—that it has been lost. But the real cause for which our ancestors fought back of slavery, and deemed by them to be bound up in the main­tenance of slavery—to wit, the supremacy of the white man’s civilization, the supremacy of the ethical culture, which had been gradually built up through countless gener­ations—has not been lost. We have not had the experience of the countries to the south of us; but I ask you, my friends, in all soberness and candor, to ask yourselves how and why we escaped the evils which befell others from identical causes, under similar, though not identical, conditions? What prevented the Africanization of the South? We escaped, but those of you, even no older than I am, will remember by what a slender thread we held to safety. You will remember the ten long years of so-called reconstruction which made the four long years of war itself seem tolerable by comparison, the ten long years during every day and every night of which Southern womanhood was menaced and Southern manhood humiliated.

In 1906, George H. Moffett wrote in Confederate Veteran:  “The kindliest relation that ever existed between the two races in this country, or that ever will, was the ante-bellum relation of master and slave—a relation of confidence and responsibility on the part of the master and of dependence and fidelity on the part of the slave.”

Despite Williams’s and Moffett’s articles, the Confederate Veteran would soon alter the rhetoric and unofficially adopt the “Lost Cause” myth in order to praise Nathan Beford Forrest, a primary leader and self-proclaimed Grand Wizard of the KKK in the late 1800s and former Confederate leader in the Civil War.

Eight: The Southern Mythos, Part 2: The KKK

The greatest supporters of the “Lost Cause” myth, however, were not the veterans themselves.  In 1894, Carolina Goodlett and Anna Raines founded the United Daughters of the Confederacy association.  The group’s primary goal, since its founding, has been to propagate this myth.  In doing so, they have been able to raise great deals of money and garner political support in favor of their historical revisionism and, with that power, have lobbied for the editing of history books, re-naming of roads, and the erecting of statues—all in honor of the Confederates who they believe are heroic in their fights for states’ rights and Southern independence.  With their magazine The Southern Magazine, the United Daughters of the Confederacy put their praises for the KKK on paper with ink.  For the U.D.C., like other “Lost Cause” proponents, the KKK wasn’t so much of a domestic terrorist group as a group of saviors rescuing the South from evil and immorality—from the blacks:  “These poor ignorant, barbarous child­ren, freed from the wholesome restraint of southern influence, were made the tools of the alien white vandals from the North, and became not only idle, vicious, thieving and insolent, but also a monstrous menace to white womenhood.”

For the United Daughters, the South owes its survival to the Klan:

That the first operations of the Ku Klux Klan were a blessing seems to be ad­mitted by most northern historians. The Radical leaders became more moderate, burnings, a weapon of the Loyal League, stopped, negroes were fright­ened into good behavior, women were protected, and civilized forms of society reappeared. In many sec­tions the activities of the Ku Klux Klan consisted only of innocent pranks to frighten the negroes into obedience, and such sections soon fell into the hands of the whites. In the black districts, however, with the coming of Carpet-bag rule, and the consequent social disorders, more strenuous measures were adopted. When other methods failed, whipping and even the death penalty were resorted to as preventa­tives of arson and the ravishing of women. These punishments were decreed and carried out in a for­mal and dignified manner in conformity with the strict discipline of the Ku Klux Klan leaders. The members of this order were thus self-constituted committees of safety, such as always appear sooner or later in a lawless, disorganized society. Like organizations served to restore order in many western mining towns during a rule of anarchy. This fact must be kept constantly in mind—in many sections of the South there was no other protection to life, property or virtue. The more serious penalties imposed by the order would never have been resorted to by the intelligent men of the South had the courts been open to them, or had even a sem­blance of justice and civilization been maintained. And the Ku Klux Klan was composed of the bravest and best men of the South, much as this has been denied by well-meaning northern apologists. An­archy reigned supreme, and the Ku Klux Klans merely resorted to the first law of nature, self-pre­servation.

Before the United Daughters and Confederate Veterans groups spread the myth of the “Lost Cause” and offered praise to the KKK for supposedly maintaining order in the South against the supposedly uncontrollable, immoral blacks, author Thomas Dixon, Jr., published the novel The Leopard’s Spots in 1902 and its sequel The Clansman in 1905.  The novel was a romanticized vision of the Klan’s formation and history.  They were presented as savior figures, while black former slaves were presented as ignorant, brutish, ape-like, and immoral animals who steal, drink, and rape white women.  In the end, Dixon’s novels highlighted the Southern inclination towards manners, dignity, and perserverence.  There are no explicit defenses for the institution of slavery.

Despite its infamy, the novels are important for one primary reason:  it served as the original material upon which pioneering director D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation was based.  The film was both a landmark for the art of filmmaking but also one of the most regrettable skeletons in the movie industry’s closet.  By the end of its theatrical run, The Birth of a Nation was (and still is) the most profitable silent film in history.  With its romanticized depictions of the Klan, a new generation of Klansmen were born.  The same year Griffith’s film debuted, William Joseph Simmons founded the second wave of the KKK from atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain on the eve of Thanksgiving.  The group’s expressed primary goals were to protect white women and their homes from the supposedly immoral blacks.  They, like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, longed for the “Old South,” a time in which they believed society was more outstanding and moral and peaceful–i.e., before blacks had freedom and autonomy.

Though the KKK never officially adopted any of the Confederate flags as official symbols of the KKK, there are numerous examples in which the relationship between the two are overwhelmingly hard to deny.  The original Klansmen were in fact Confederate veterans.  Six Confederate veterans founded the original KKK in Pulaski, Tennessee, in late 1865, as a response to Lee’s surrender to the North.  Earlier that year, the Southern Cross of New Orleans was founded, as was the Knights of the White Camelia of Louisiana two years later.  According to Nathan Forrest, the original Klan’s founding was in opposition to Republicans and proponents of black freedom and equality.  He saw the South’s loss in the Civil War as a moment in which white Southerners lost their rights to Union sympathizers in exchange for the abolition of institutionalized slavery. The connection between the Confederates, their flags, and racism is pretty well documented.

Nine: The Civil Rights Movement

After Lee surrendered and the Civil War came to an end, the Confederate flags practically disappeared from the mainstream—even in the South.  Robert E. Lee considered the use of the Confederate flags akin to treason, going so far as to make sure none would be present at his funeral. The flags found around his tomb were added decades after he died in 1870.  Until the 1940s, the Confederate flags were mostly relegated to commemoration events, statues, etc.  That all changed with the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1946, President Harry S. Truman organized the President’s Committee on Civil Rights via Executive Order .  The committee’s task was to investigate civil rights abuses and come up with reasonable suggestions in regards to solving or correcting those abuses.  In 1948, Truman signed two Executive Orders, as recommended in the committee’s original report:  first, he ordered the desegregation of the federal work force; and then, he ordered the desegregation of the armed services.  Later that year, at the Democratic National Convention, Mayor Hubert Humphrey gave a speech about the party’s need to adopt civil rights issues as a party platform.  Truman agreed.  Southern Democrats, however, didn’t.  35 of them stormed out of the Convention in protest. [4]

In response, South Carolina Gov. (and future Sen.) Strom Thurmond, along with his Southern Democrat colleagues, splintered from the Democratic party and formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party, now known as the infamous Dixiecrats.  After the party held its own Convention, the Dixiecrats nominated Thurmond as their party’s candidate for President.  Thurmond later gave a speech in Oklahoma that defined his party’s platform:

We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race; the constitutional right to choose one’s associates; to accept private employment without governmental interference, and to earn one’s living in any lawful way. We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program. We favor home-rule, local self-government and a minimum interference with individual rights.

In the election, the Dixiecrats went on to carry Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina and received one electoral vote from Tennessee.

One of the interesting things about Thurmond’s run for office, though, was his party’s use of the Confederate flags, especially the Battle Flag.  Supporters and candidates alike donned the flag on clothing or waved miniature flags in the air.  At one point during the Convention, the organizers had students carry in a giant picture of Robert E. Lee.  And numerous speakers referred to Lee and Jefferson Davis in glowing terms to an elated audience.

Four years later, another milestone sent Southern racists into an uproar.  The Supreme Court made a landmark ruling when they decided in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) that “separate but equal” laws were unconstitutional.  This was followed by a series of historical events, including Rosa Parks’s 1955 protest against segregation, the forced integration of schools in Little Rock in 1957, and the arrests of the Friendship Nine in 1961.

In protest of integration policies and rallies against segregation that were beginning to sweep across the South, Georgia adopted segregationist John Sammons Bell’s design, which featured the Battle Flag and the Georgia State emblem, as the state’s official flag in 1956.  Though no one knows for certain if the adoption of the flag design was an intentional protest, it would be strange to assume not since the State Assembly passed a laundry list of racist bills and Jim Crows laws and Marvin Griffin, the Governor at the time, was an adamant racist who explicitly stated that he would do everything in his power to maintain a society defined by segregation.  Governor Marvin Griffin would become known for a number of public statements regarding integration and equality, including the infamous promise to keep schools segregated “come Hell or high water.”

Shortly after the arrest of the Friendship Nine (sometimes referred to as the Rock Hill Nine), South Carolina hoisted its Confederate battle flag over its capitol building to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.  Oddly, the bill that South Carolina’s Congressional representatives approved didn’t specify exactly when the flag was to come down, even though the original intent was to leave it hoisted above the capitol building for a total of one year.  When that year was up, no one seemed to care, and the flag remained there for 54 more years.  Even at the time, the action was seen as a symbol of South Carolina’s contention that segregation was a states’ rights issue.  In late 1961, the National Civil War Centennial Commission organized a meeting in a segregated hotel in South Carolina.  Arguments then broke out as the hotel refused to allow a black delegate from New Jersey entrance.  President Kennedy even had to step in to resolve the matter.

In 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy traveled to Alabama for a discussion of the integration of public state universities.  Alabama Governor and devout segregationist George Wallace purposely hoisted the Confederate battle flag over his state’s capitol in protest.  Two years later, he raised the flag again when he sent troopers to Selma in order to instigate a clash between Dr. King and other civil rights protestors.

Thanks to these states and leaders like Wallace, the Confederate battle flag became a symbol of defiance against the abolition of Jim Crow laws in the South.  In the post-slavery era, it only makes since that the flag should evolve from a symbol of pro-slavery to a symbol of pro-Jim Crow.


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