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Friday, June 16, 2017

A civil rights milestone

On May 23, Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans--the scion of one of Louisiana's leading political families--gave a speech explaining the decision to remove statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T Beauregard from their prominent outdoor place in the heart of New Orleans, with plans to move them indoors to a museum.  The mayor was undoubtedly moved, as he made clear, by the strong feelings of his black constituents that men who fought a war to preserve secession and slavery should not be celebrated publicly.  His speech, however, took full responsibility for the decision and argued for its necessity on very sound historical and political grounds.   And for that reason, the speech represents, I think, a milestone in American political history.  I cannot be sure of my facts here, but I suspect that Mitch Landrieu was the first white southern politician since the time of the Civil War itself to state publicly that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity, as he put it, and that it rightfully lost the war.

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."

Thank you, Mayor Landrieu.  I hope we all hear a lot more about you in the future.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this post.

At a time when truth is equated to innuendo and lies (Time Magazine) and therefore does not represent what is right, even "as God gives us to see the right", this Southern mayor's words are both truthful and right in the traditional sense. If his words are a turning point, let them lead to a full appreciation of the contributions of African Americans and other people of color to the growth of this country, and recognition of the equal intelligence, talent and great wisdom of them by all white Americans.

Energyflow said...

I am surprised you focus on such an event. Moving past the past is difficult. We see this in Europe. When countries fall apart simmering grievances come to the fore. Cultural differences are emphasized, linguistic, food traditions. Essentially in a world without mass transport and instant communications smalller nations with own cultures make more sense as in Europe. Russia has a very flexible attitude to chechenia for example which is allowed practically full autonomy. This is like our attitude to indian reservations. If history were linear I could agree with your analysis. However we see that for every inch of progress blacks acheive yards of barriers are put in their way(redlining, mass incarceration, gerrymandering, vigilante type private justice). Rationalism makes up a very small part of human nature. We mostoy justify with logic that which we sucked up with mother's milk. We are quite primitive despite the name homo sapiens sapiens. Take last week's shooting of a congressman by a Trump hater. Your column last week fell perfectly in line with the standard party line of the MSM that Trump is a dictator. I did not attack that straight on as being a hopeless undertaking, like with russophobes, southern racists, etc. The MSM has a mission to sow discord,, create atmosphere for a new civil war. Obama expanded security state after Bush. Trump's staef wish for peace dividend, isolationism, detente is being sabotaged as unpatriotic. It is clear that permanent war serves the owners of the press who are in bed with military and financial elite and want continued global military/ financiall/cultural domination by USA. The destruction of the middle cllass, of basic freedoms has destroyed what it means to be an American. Why support the oligarchy? Their goals are to subjugate other people just like they have Americans. This is similar to aliens who hop from planet to planet destroying them one after the other. Divide et impera. Use racial/cultural differences between blue/red zones, dems/repubs to maintain control. It seems this will lead to a civil war as people are getting whipped up beyond control internally against one another and foreign enemies refuse to play bad guy, giving easy target. So it seems WWIII will be called off as Russia/China are too sophisticated and an American civil conflict will ensue, possibly parallel to a realignment of Europe, with or without America. America is not one country but lots of regions and regions within regions, with minorities ethnically, racially, ideologically in danger of ethnic cleansing. Most of this has already occurred as people fled wrong zip codes over decades but who knows how it will end.

Bozon said...


Thanks for this post.

The twilight of the idols, so to speak.

Tearing down images has a long history.

It seems to me that we are in a sort of endgame of the age of the democratic revolution, an age which has devolved, at least in terms of Western cultural thinking, into a global multicultural melting pot motif such as Mayor Laddrieu describes, and an accompanying market culture ideology, for lack of anything else into which it can or could turn, frankly.

Multiculturalism is not a new culture, or a higher culture, unfortunately.

It is a sort of end to prior cultures, an unculture, if you will.

So called pop culture, everywhere, seems now to epitomize this devolution.

All the best

Gloucon X said...

The United Daughters of the Confederacy formed the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Association at their Chattanooga convention in 1917. They tried to fund a Confederate memorial carving on Stone Mountain, but they couldn't get it done. Then in 1958 (right at the height of the Civil Rights Movement--surprise, surprise) the state legislature finally gained access to the property and decided to finish the carving which was completed in 1972. Not going to be so easy to remove, but I suppose it could be done.