Leave It To Southerners To Decide If It’s Dixie’s Fault

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.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

16 comments… add one
  • Annette Jackson Jul 25, 2015 @ 4:59

    In my opinion I would have better luck trying to teach my cats to read than change the mind of a Lost Causer about anything to do with the war. They have their own websites and literature that perpetuate views that can easily be refuted by historical documents of the time…not our time. One of the latest I saw was that the Union troops burned Richmond..not the first time I have run into this myth, but it joins another one that the Union troops burned Petersburg to the ground after it surrendered. This is “carp” history but it joins the myth of 90,000 black Confederates.

    Poor white rural dwellers have always needed to have someone to look down upon…the now elderly or deceased white people in the NE who resisted integration were sometimes reacting in a way that suggests tribalism. No region of the country is free of racism. The most unprejudiced person I knew in my childhood was my step grandfather. He had been a cowboy on most of the major Texas cattle ranches in his youth and worked with many of the famous black cowboys. He tied to convince my very racially prejudiced father that black people were people with the same hopes and dreams as everyone…..that was truly a lost cause, unfortunately.

    • I think it counterproductive to try and discuss any subject while employing epithets. Simply branding someone as a neo-Confederate or a lost causer does not add to any argument. As for your question why 7000 Jews fought in the Confederacy and may be an overstatement or an understatement. Like most people in any country they fight for their country even if it’s newly formed without much regard for the abstract issues of the morality of the war. Not that morality is abstract but it is the common citizen. Also any community particularly in the 19th century to be viewed as a coward cast dispersion on your entire family. In the case of Jewish people there was already that aspect that they were Jewish. Unless they wish to relocate in the north they either fought in the Confederacyor left town.

      Prof. Gary Gallagher was hardly a Confederate defender has made statements that “Any historian who argues that the Confederate people demonstrated robust devotion to their slave-based republic, possessed feelings of national community, and sacrificed more than any other segment of white society in United States history runs the risk of being labeled a neo-Confederate”

      I prefer the term Confederate apologists, and Federal apologists. Both sides wish to bury the deep secret of some of their ancestors iniquity behind a veil of patriotism to me understanding the Civil War as a moral disaster leads you to reflect upon the concept of just war in the present day.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 25, 2015 @ 10:18

        No one is employing “epithets” on this thread. Take it easy.

  • Travis Jul 25, 2015 @ 1:52

    Funny title. Left to their own devices southerners would prove blacks still fervently desire to be slaves. Their studies would show that no PTSD would have occurred when watching ya girl raped, or your children given stripes. Or worse, sold away never to be seen again? Southerners (Texas) are very willing to warp history in a way that ignores atrocities, and glorifies southern ‘heritage’. We know what that means

  • You make some very cogent points concerning the removal of Confederate monuments and Thomas Sugrues remarks on the subject. There are in my opinion to issues which are rarely addressed. The first is Confederate veterans are by law American veterans. The removal of monuments to American veterans Confederate or otherwise should not be handled in a way that’s disrespectful. The statues to individual soldiers or to those who died in the war should be replaced either on Civil War battlefields or in cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are buried.

    The other issue which no one seems to want to address is the fact that demographics do indeed change and they can quickly change from white to black or black to Latin the parks commission or city Council changes in ethnic city and the standard has already been set they have the ability to remove or change monuments on public property and there is nothing from stopping them from doing it again. Although there is this great myth of the unity of people of color I’m afraid is nothing but a myth. The prison system does not separate Mexicans from lax and whites etc. because they are in danger of having a love in.

    And of course is not only Latinos but also Asians who sometimes move heavily into neighborhoods that were previously black. There is extreme antagonism and violence towards Asians in poor black communities. There is no love lost their what could be Martin Luther King St. could easily turn into one named after a Cambodian or Vietnamese hero. Also this has nothing to do with the reconciliation it smacks more of triumphalism in some cases. People are never really interested in the dynamics of what makes some Southerners so attached to the Confederate flag it is very easy to call them white trash, trailer trash, crackers and the omnipresent reference to Hillbillies and inbreeding..

    Now I don’t expect the usual liberal polemicist have an understanding of semiotics if they can’t separate that there is more than one way to look at a flag such as the Confederate flag and that advocating slavery in the 19th century(and we all know the United States was also a slaveowning Republic) and the symbol of the third Reich is no point in dialogue. I have often argued with my atheist friends that they don’t understand the dynamics of the sociology of religion. There is a clear correlation but you mean ones security and religiosity. Those states in areas that have strong social nets such as Scandinavia at very low religiosity and those such as the rural South and the Bible Belt where you have capitalistic medicine and almost no security net there is high religiosity.

    If you want to subdue the veneration of the Confederate flag then you’re going to have to do something about the poverty in the area, the hopelessness that they feel, you have to stop portraying them all as characters from deliverance in nearly every movie and television program. That may be a bit of an exaggeration but studies have shown the most maligned group that Hollywood deals with next to Arabs while middle-class white Southerners and lower middle class or a building block the white rural poor are not.
    Now I am a member of the Sons of Confederate veterans the Sons of Union veterans of the Civil War and the Sons of the American Revolution. I joined all these when my children were young to give them a sense of heritage and history. You do know that the Sons of Union veterans of the Civil War does not approve of taking down monuments to the Confederacy made an official statement to that effect in 2000 and reissued it in 2015. Those of us were members of both organizations are jokingly referred to as SOB, sons of both. I know what discrimination I grew up fairly poor because my father passed away when I was very from wounds he received in the Korean War. My mother had to work a couple of jobs we lived in some pretty dangerous areas at time. I have been called a cracker enough I could change my first name to Ritz Weber in the predominately black neighborhoods I lived in I was more likely to preferred to as A kike.
    That is as soon as they figured out when side of my family was Jewish. Do not forget 7000 Jews plot for the Confederacy that the only military’s Jewish cemetery outside of Israel is enrichment for Confederate veterans. Don’t forget Moses Ezekiel and Judah P Benjamin the latter which is a distant relative
    I will finish by saying that I don’t think that either the Confederates or the federals can claim a just war.

    To look back at 19th-century people and expect them to hold the belief of 21st-century people is as absurd as it is to condemn 19th-century positions for not doing heart transplants. Member also that the shooter though he had many pictures of themselves with the Confederate flag told the last person who saw him it is real anger was over the Zimmerman trial. The cable news people falling over themselves to find out what could be the most rating rich racial comment stood up immense hostility.
    I find the term Confederate swastika extremely offensive. There was only one member of my family that escaped Alsace-Lorraine and survived the camps. He passed away a couple of years ago but not before he heard Julian Bonds equation of the Confederacy with the Nazis. He felt it was demeaning to the millions of people who died in concentration camps of Jewish and Slavic gypsies to try and equate it with what went on in the 19th century the Civil War. He has relatives in America were not rounded up in concentration camps in the South, although Grant and Sherman like to ship them off to Timbuktu.

    • Jim Jul 25, 2015 @ 4:38

      CSA vets are not US vets.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 25, 2015 @ 4:55

        Here is a helpful link on the Confederate vets are U.S. vets meme. The question of how Confederate soldiers/monuments/flags ought to be remembered and/or commemorated is not necessarily dependent on what you think regarding the legal status of Confederate veterans.

        • Jim Jul 25, 2015 @ 6:12
          • Andy Hall Jul 25, 2015 @ 7:02

            The legislation that established the state Department of Veterans Affairs, that in turn administers the Hall of Fame, is explicit that it serves and honors United States veterans, which Confederates are not. Whether that was done intentionally to exclude Confederate veterans, I don’t know, but the fix is straightforward, to amend the legislation. It the heritage folks put as much energy into amending the Florida law as they do whining about it, it would’ve been corrected by now.

            The argument that Confederate-veterans-are-American-veterans has no particular relevance as a legal matter, since the term “American veteran” is not part of the legislative landscape.

    • Kristoffer Jul 25, 2015 @ 6:30

      A pretty good post. Frankly, the instances of very bad behavior of Northern whites towards blacks could be xenophobia rather than racism. Think about it. Xenophobia only requires an “other” to be invading or previously invaded your region. Racism requires a view of your own race as superior, and others as inferior, yet is easily attained. With no history of racism being required to justify slavery in the North, xenophobia seems like a more likely candidate for motivation. That would explain the sundown towns nicely, as they were a deployment of local containment, rather than sheer restriction like in the Jim Crow South.

      Furthermore, changes in demographics aren’t limited by skin color. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the very bad behavior of Northern whites towards blacks could be caused by transplanted Southern whites who moved out of the South looking for a better job market, and got prone to violence when they found the blacks they despised under less oppression than they were used to.

    • Annette Jackson Jul 25, 2015 @ 9:02

      Do you have any inkling why Jewish people in the south supported the Confederacy? Until recently, I would have assumed that they would be firm abolitionists, being as how they were held in bondage themselves. Where I live there was a very prominent Jewish family with deep roots in the Commonwealth. During the CW some left Virginia, not for the north, but off shore to one of the islands…maybe Bermuda. They returned during Reconstruction. Some members converted to Christianity, specifically became Episcopalians. I also am confused by your relative and his reaction to Julian Bond’s speech. Was your relative aware that the attitude of white Southerners toward black people was very similar to the Nazi attitude toward Jews and other people they considered inferior? In fact it is clear in documents that that was exactly the same attitude….

      • Kevin Levin Jul 25, 2015 @ 9:08

        Jews were part of the fabric of Southern culture. It should come as no surprise that Jews supported the Confederacy. There were relatively large populations in places like Charleston and New Orleans. You may want to check out Robert Rosen’s book, Jewish Confederates.

        Last year I accompanied 40 Jewish students on a civil rights trip through the South. We spent some time with a rabbi in Montgomery, Alabama. Students had a very difficult time coming to terms with the fact that many Jews in the community were not civil rights activists in the 1950s and 60s. In fact, they helped to maintain the status quo. Religious views tend to adjust to the broader culture.

        • Annette Jackson Jul 25, 2015 @ 9:49

          Very good points. Beginning in high school ,and continuing on into recent times, I have tended to surround myself with people who have more liberal views. We might have gone to church or synagogue, but it tended to be the holy days of obligation if Catholic, or the high holy days if Jewish. Political beliefs tended to trump religious affiliation, so I definitely see your point….we just became liberals instead of conservatives.

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