Friday, July 10, 2015

South Carolina’s Lost Battle to Rewrite its Racist History

Having lived in the South for the majority of my life now, one steady undercurrent has always been the effort of some whites, perhaps not a majority, to keep minorities in their place.  Here in Virginia the separate rest room facilities for blacks and whites are gone, but through voter ID laws and the difficulty faced by felons (blacks are disproportionately convicted) to regain voting rights, the theme of keeping blacks subservient is alive and well, especially among Virginia Republicans.  But Virginia, despite the statues on Monument Avenue in Richmond, has been discrete about its racism compared to South Carolina, the state that started the Civil War, and which has flown the Confederate flag at its state house until today.  A column in the Washington Post looks at South Carolina's losing battle to rewrite its very racist history.  Here are excerpts:

For most of my life, a flag representing white supremacist violence against black people flew at the capitol of my native state. It is a very big deal that this emblem of hatred and oppression is finally coming down.

Gov. Nikki Haley (R) was expansive after the state legislature finished action early Thursday on a bill consigning the Confederate battle flag to the museum displays where it belongs: “It is a new day in South Carolina, a day we can all be proud of.” I have to entertain the notion that she may be right.

In the South, William Faulkner wrote, the past isn’t even past. The flag represented, for some white South Carolinians, a past that was invented out of whole cloth — a past in which something other than slavery was the cause of a conflict Southerners called the “War Between the States.”

In truth, the Civil War only was about states’ rights in the sense that the Confederate states feared losing one specific “right” — to own human beings and compel their labor. No amount of Spanish moss can obscure this basic fact. No paeans to the valor of Confederate soldiers can change the fact that they were fighting for slavery.

And no amount of revisionist claptrap can change the fact that the flag was hoisted at the capitol in Columbia in 1961 and kept flying not to honor some gauzy vision of Southern valor but to resist the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation. The flag meant whites-only schools, whites-only public accommodations, whites-only voter rolls. It represented white power and privilege over subjugated African Americans.  

[I]t was another woman — Republican state Rep. Jenny Horne — who guaranteed success with a powerful speech telling her colleagues that enough was enough.

“I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful, such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday!” Horne thundered. She wasn’t having any of the “noble heritage” cornpone that flag apologists were selling; Horne is a descendant of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, she said, and still she knew it was time for the flag to come down.

Before Horne’s intervention, it looked as if the state House might cave to the latter-day Johnny Rebs who were seeking to stall the legislation into parliamentary oblivion.

For 150 years after Appomattox, the states of the Confederacy lived a twisted fantasy. As evidenced by the diehards in the South Carolina legislature, some white Southerners still refuse to wake from the reverie. But the rest of the state has finally moved on.

Does this mean that South Carolina and other former Confederate states will take a new look at all the monuments and memorials dedicated to white supremacists who advocated slavery and fomented armed rebellion against the United States?  . . . . Probably not, or at least not anytime soon. Emanuel A.M.E. Church is on a street named for John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina “statesman” who defended slavery not as a necessary evil but as an absolute good, and who laid the philosophical groundwork for the treasonous act of secession.

The flag is more important, though, because of the way it has been used — not just as an instrument of repression but also as a way to deny history and thus avoid history’s judgments and responsibilities. What South Carolina’s governor and legislature have announced is clear: It’s time, finally, to stop pretending.

Symbols matter. South Carolina should have brought down the Confederate battle flag long ago. . . .

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