We must not forget that quite a few white southerners held that view when the war began in the 1860s, and committed everything to the Union cause. One such was Andrew Johnson, a poor white Tennessean, who remained in his seat in the Senate when Tennessee seceded and became Lincoln's vice president in 1864, with tragic consequences. (It turned out that Johnson hated free blacks even more than he hated southern planters.) Others included George "Pap" Thomas, a Virginian, and David Farragut, a Tennessean by birth who had lived most of his life in the South, who became, respectively, the commander of the Union Army of the Cumberland and a leading Admiral of the northern fleet during the war. The Texan Sam Houston also opposed secession. Ironically, even Robert E. Lee--whose statue was among those removed--made it clear in 1861 that he felt secession was a terrible mistake, but opted anyway to fight with his native state of Virginia, and spent four years trying to preserve the Confederacy. After the war, however, things changed.
Few historical forces and more powerful than bad consciences. In the white South, it became essential in the decades after Appomattox to argue that the "war between the states" had been forced upon the southern states by the north, that it was not really about slavery, and that, fortunately, heroic southerners had preserved white supremacy after the war. In the decades following the conflict southern politicians and northern Democrats managed to prevent Lincoln's birthday from ever becoming a national holiday, and agitated unsuccessfully to create a national holiday in honor of Lee. They also, of course, established segregation and deprived their black citizens of equal rights.
Not until the wake of the Second World War, I believe, did a new type of white southern politician begin to emerge. The New Deal had combined poor southern whites and black voters in the North within the same coalition, and many white southern politicians had supported it, while remaining opposed to integration. But the GI generation spawned a number of white southern politicians who supported at least some progress on civil rights. They included Estes Kefauver, a New Deal liberal from Tennessee who came quite close to winning the Democratic nomination for President in 1952, and Lyndon Johnson and Ralph Yarborough from Texas. While Johnson, as Robert Caro showed, came into the Senate in 1949 as a loyal white southerner dedicated to white supremacy, he moved to the center on civil rights by 1957, largely because of his presidential ambitions Another remarkable southern politician was Governor Jim Folsom of Alabama, who spoke bluntly on behalf of civil rights for black citizens in the mid-1950s. On the Supreme Court, Hugo Black, a New Deal liberal from Alabama, joined in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and in numerous other decisions affirming the rights of black Americans--but he, of course, was safely protected from the whims of the voters. In 1948, Harry Truman, from Missouri, became the first President to endorse a modern civil rights program, and ordered the desegregation of the armed forces. And when Johnson became President in 1963, he became of course the most effective civil rights advocate to occupy the White House since Lincoln, signing both the great Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregating public accommodations and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nearly every white southern politician, however, opposed those bills, although Mayor Ivan Allen of Atlanta testified for the 1964 act before Congress, and Al Gore, Sr., of Tennessee voted for voting rights.
Unfortunately, while much of the white South had embraced the New Deal, they were not ready for civil rights. It was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, indeed, that South Carolina and certain other states began flying the Confederate flag in their state houses. Southern schools continued to teach their white students about the "War of Northern Aggression," and white southerners grew up believing that the war was not really about slavery. Just a few years ago I met a legal scholar from Virginia, roughly my own age, who declared that the world would have been better off if the North had allowed secession and said that as a Virginian, he inevitably had a low opinion of Lincoln. In the 1990s millions of Americans watched the historian Shelby Foote fight off tears as he lamented the fall of the Confederacy in Ken Burns's documentary on the Civil War.
Following in LBJ's footsteps, the next two Democratic Presidents--Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Bill Clinton from Arkansas--forthrightly embraced civil rights for black Americans. But neither of them, to my knowledge, every bluntly said what Mitch Landrieu said last month. I quote from his speech.
"The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.
. . . "Should you have further doubt about the true goals of the Confederacy, in the very weeks before the war broke out, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. He said in his now famous ‘cornerstone speech’ that the Confederacy’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 normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.'
"Now, with these shocking words still ringing in your ears... I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us. And make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago — we can more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation and forge a clearer and straighter path toward a better city and a more perfect union."
Now I am not enough of an authority on 20th and 21st century southern politics to be sure of what I am about to say, and I would be delighted if any readers can cite evidence that will prove it wrong. But to my knowledge, Landrieu is, literally, the first white southern office holder to bluntly state the simple truth that the Confederacy was wrong and to welcome its defeat. That is what his fellow whtie southerners need to hear. Meanwhile, white and black Americans throughout the nation--deluged to political correctness and false history on many fronts--also have to learn to give credit to the many white people who never accepted slavery, brought about and won the civil war, and laid the foundation for a better America.
This, indeed, the mayor also did at the very conclusion of his speech.
"It is our acknowledgment that now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history.
"Anything less would render generations of courageous struggle and soul-searching a truly lost cause. Anything less would fall short of the immortal words of our greatest President Abraham Lincoln, who with an open heart and clarity of purpose calls on us today to unite as one people when he said: 'With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds...to do all which may achieve and cherish — a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.'
Thank you, Mayor Landrieu. I hope we all hear a lot more about you in the future.