“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.
Here is a comment I received today from my friend Allen about this post. I’m posting it on his behalf because the time for commenting is technically closed.
I couldn’t find a way to comment directly, but this post brings up so much for me that I can scarcely put it into words. From being in a family (two actually, both sides) that were not very prejudiced and had good relations with our black neighbors, to playing with black kids–my Dad and his brothers did also–, to spending a night in jail for sit-ins.
The ‘answers’ must come from the South itself (although it’s not really monolithic) and seem to be (far too) slowly coming along. With each generation it’s getting better but… Unless we can achieve this ourselves, it’s still just coercion. Overall North Carolina isn’t as bad as Mississippi, and our urban areas have been more receptive than the rural areas.
There is probably some truth to the view that, in the South, we don’t mind blacks being too close, just not to get too high; and, in the North, not minding them getting too high, but not too close. And here where the growth has come from in-migration, I rarely hear a Southerner use the N-word but from northerners, far more.
As I have said to you before, I don’t want to give up my ‘privilege’ but I am willing to share it.
I’m glad to see you back doing your terrific works and hope you have been off doing fun things. -A.