It’s a lost cause to try to keep up with all of the thought provoking essays and editorials published over the past few weeks surrounding the national discussion about the history and legacy of the Confederacy. Last week The Washington Post published the thoughts of Thomas Sugrue, who is one of the most respected historians on the history of race, urban America and the civil rights movement in the North. I highly recommend Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North.
Sugrue challenges what he sees as a “tired motif in American journalism that the South is the source of our nation’s social ills.” He singles out Michael Lind, Time, and the Huffington Post for special attention and offers the following:
This time, in the wake of the church shooting, the states of the old Confederacy have become a national scapegoat for the racism that underpinned the massacre. If only they would secede again, Lind and others suggest, the nation would largely be free from endemic prejudice, zealotry and racist violence.
No doubt, there is some truth to this statement. Sugrue uses the opportunity to provide a survey of the kinds of racial challenges faced, typically identified with the history of the South, in Northern states and other parts of the country. It’s not a pretty picture and he is correct that Americans have largely forgotten this struggle:
When all else failed, white Northerners attacked blacks who attempted to cross the color line, using tactics we typically associate with the Jim Crow South. They threw bricks through the windows of their black neighbors’ homes, firebombed an integrated apartment building and beat black residents in the streets. In Detroit, to name one example, whites launched more than 200 attacks on black homeowners between 1945 and 1965. In Levittown, Pa., hundreds of angry whites gathered in front of the home of the first black family to move there and threw rocks through the windows. Racists burned crosses in the yards of the few white neighbors who welcomed the new family. That violence occurred in 1957, the same year whites in Little Rock attacked black students integrating Central High School, yet it’s that story — of racial bias in the South — that dominates our narrative of America’s civil rights struggle.
My civil rights unit for the school that I taught at here in Boston used the Bus Crisis of the 1970s to frame this history. I wanted my students to see the scope of America’s racial problem in their own backyard and not to think of it as a distant problem in time and space.
But if Sugrue successfully dismantles one motif or narrative he reinforces another.
This is not simply another example of the tired narrative of Northerners v. Southerners. Sugrue ignores the fact that the debate about the legacy of the Confederacy, including the public display of the battle flag and the place of monuments on public ground, has been taking place in large and small communities throughout former Confederate states for quite some time. It is a discussion that is largely the product of the consequences of the civil rights movement, the changing racial and ethnic profile of local government as well as demographic shifts in the South. Individuals and organizations at the grassroots level, that for a long time were prevented from voicing their opinions on these issues, now have political and legal channels through which they can act.
I want to see this public debate, in all of its emotion and vitriol, play out even if some states would rather pull the brakes on it. It involves important questions about how communities remember their collective pasts and how they struggle to marry that past with the present to reflect the current values of the whole. Never an easy goal, but one that is long overdue in regard to the Confederate past.
Sugrue is absolutely right to point out the continued investment in what Robert Penn Warren dubbed the North’s “treasury of virtue”and he is correct that it comes at a huge cost. The focus on Northern finger pointing, however, is a huge distraction in this particular case. Communities throughout the South have proven themselves entirely capable of sorting this one out.