I well recall being harshly corrected by my eighth grade history teacher when I responded to his question with what he insisted was an incorrect answer.
What, he had asked, was the cause of the Civil War? Slavery, I answered. With a mix of extreme frustration and downright anger, he pounded his fist on his desk and corrected me, his booming voice making me feel even smaller than the undersized fledgling adolescent I then was.
“States’ rights,” he shouted. That was the cause—the sole cause—of the Civil War.
I carefully considered his words for many years after that day, still do, as a matter of fact.
States’ rights, I have since concluded, was a euphemism for slavery. The southern states, those that had seceded to form the Confederacy, were not about to give up their ownership of human beings, since both their economy and their way of life were dependent on that disgraceful form of servitude. But we all know that chapter of our history, even if, as late as one hundred years after the Civil War had ended the Confederacy and the institution of slavery, the euphemism was still being taught in schools far removed from the region where slavery had flourished.
Fast forward another half century and we have the South of our times, wherein the flag of the Confederacy is still revered by many who live in those states that had seceded to maintain their unique form of bigotry all those years before. And, yes, I’m delighted that the governor of South Carolina has had a change of heart (as, suddenly, have many other politicians in the region) and that her state’s legislature has repealed the law that required the confederate flag to be flown at the statehouse in Charleston. She still claims that the flag represents, for some, a sign of respect for those who fought and died in the Civil War, and that may be true. But couldn’t the same be said of the Nazi Swastika in Germany? Can anyone imagine what the reaction would be if a large section of Germany maintained that the Swastika should still be displayed as a sign of respect for those who fought and died for the Third Reich in World War II?
What puzzles me, and has always puzzled me, about the dominant attitude that allegiance to that flag portrays, is the obvious dichotomy of feelings it indicates. On the one hand, southerners claim to be staunchly patriotic, while on the other, they harbor sentiments that “the South will rise again” or, as the then governor of Texas seriously suggested not all that long ago in a new version of the states’ rights claim, that his state could still secede from the Union, if the federal government enacted laws contrary to the will of his state’s residents.
Southerners with this mindset appear to have a singular view of what the United States should be, and while I confess to being less than fully appreciative of it, that view is, to paraphrase another time-worn catchphrase, “my country right or wrong, so long as it’s right.” And in current parlance, “right” seems to mean being highly reverent of God, particularly the Christian version, being exceedingly distrustful of laws enacted by Congress and of regulations adopted by any president (but particularly the current one), and maintaining that marriage must only be between a man and a woman who share the same skin color.
Now, to be sure, the South, along with the rest of the nation, has come a long way since the Civil War. More particularly, many deep-seated racist attitudes have given way to acceptance of our multi-racial, multi-ethnic, highly diverse national community, especially in the last sixty years, probably with Jackie Robinson’s (and Branch Rickey’s) success in breaking the color barrier in baseball. Such racism as remains is either well contained or, in its more virulent forms, exists only in the backwoods of the deepest South. But it’s still there, as the young black man who shuttled me from a car dealer to my home recently attested.
He grew up in a rural town in North Carolina, and he attended a small integrated high school. He told me that he and his black friends would never consider dating a white girl and that even smiling at one of the prettier ones in his class could be dangerous. When I asked him how it would be dangerous, he told me that the Klan was still active in rural North Carolina, just as, he was sure, it was in much of the rest of the South. When I pressed him to explain what could happen, he hesitated.
“Well,” he said, “definitely cross burnings on front lawns were not uncommon. I never saw any physical violence, but there were rumors, and I sure wasn’t going to risk anything.” He paused and then added, “I definitely feel a lot more comfortable here in California.”
His report is anecdotal, to be sure, but I didn’t doubt for a minute his candor. And, let’s be honest: do we really think the racist attitudes conveyed by the killer of the nine parishioners in Charleston last month were unique to him alone?
So, where am I going with this rant? Don’t get me wrong. I know that we have overcome the Jim Crow era in our history. De jure segregation is a thing of the past. Even de facto segregation is de minimis compared to what it was in my youth. And, as we have proven twice now, we are even capable of electing a black man to be our president, and of then finding him wanting with the same color-blind disappointment we have felt for his many white predecessors. And if more local leaders, like Governor Haley, start to speak out forcefully, maybe the last remnants of the old Confederacy can be forever erased from our society.
But, until then, we need to acknowledge that racism in America continues to exist, and if it isn’t entirely confined to the South, it certainly has a strong presence there.