“It would just be so wonderful if the answers could actually come from the South itself,” Isabella Wilkerson said. She was talking about the Charleston shootings, the Confederate flag, and the influence the South’s slave-holding past continues to have on the region. The race hatred that motivated a young white gunman to kill nine African-Americans in their own church is an extreme manifestation of the bitterness and resentment still lingering in some hearts after the Civil War—a conflict whose one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary the nation has just observed.
That long-ago conflict determined the superior power of the federal government over the states, while putting an end to Southern slavery. The citizens of the sections warred against one another, one side sold on the merits of federalism, the other desiring to preserve states’ autonomy. The South went to war over the right to pass and uphold whatever laws it pleased—specifically those that sanction chattel slavery.
The Union’s victory invalidated the rebels’ arguments, while setting up an asymmetrical dynamic vis-à-vis the South that persists. In the wake of this rebuke, the federal government (in the so-called “Reconstruction” era) ruled Southern state governments for ten years, fearing that, if given political autonomy, the states would use it to resurrect slavery. Later in the century, Southern states achieved something approximate through the Jim Crow laws. During the civil rights era of the 1960s, the federal government again intervened to help secure and uphold black Southerners’ claims to legal and civil equality. This legacy of intervention achieved progress by coercion–an achievement very different than that of racial reconciliation and political healing from inside.
When I traveled to Mississippi in the early 1990s, I was shocked to encounter whites who felt they couldn’t ‘win’ because of the weights the Civil War had placed on them. They still felt diminished and beaten, and still resented and feared the state’s large black population, which could attain hegemony if empowered. Enmeshed in an archaic social paradigm, they still regarded their black brethren as something other than Southern and equal.
The Southern tendency to predicate the present on this past is a baleful impediment to Southern progress. It is, moreover, a baleful impediment to the vitality and strength of the entire country. People of all sections are affected by the conditions prevailing in this one region. Just imagine the transforming effects upon the entire nation if the South were finally to heal its own historical wounds!
Above: A man cuts out stars for a flag with a machine, in a photograph probably taken in 1909.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.