Judg­ing the past by the present puts the fu­ture at risk

Rappahannock News - - COMMENT - BY BEN JONES

Pre­sen­tism: Noun, 1. un­crit­i­cal ad­her­ence to present-day at­ti­tudes, es­pe­cially the ten­dency to in­ter­pret past events in terms of mod­ern values and con­cepts.

My friend Frank Reynolds makes the ex­treme ar­gu­ment that the “co-op­tion” of The Con­fed­er­ate Bat­tle Flag by racists and rad­i­cals like the KKK and the Neo-Nazis is there­fore the equiv­a­lent of the “Swastika” and thus jus­ti­fies the re­moval of Con­fed­er­ate memo­ri­als.

But the fact is that the Con­fed­er­ate Bat­tle Flag’s sym­bol is a St. An­drews Chris­tian Cross, be­cause the men who adopted it were de­vout Chris­tians. It is also true that the of­fi­cial flag of the Ku Klux Klan is the Amer­i­can Flag. By Frank’s rea­son­ing our na­tional flag must also go be­cause it has been co-opted by big­ots.

Ac­cord­ing to the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter, an or­ga­ni­za­tion which tracks “hate groups,” there are ap­prox­i­mately 35,000 mem­bers of these KKK and Nazi or­ga­ni­za­tions, al­most all of them in the North. Com­pare that to the 75,000,000 of us who are de­scended from those who fought for the Con­fed­er­acy. We un­der­stand our an­ces­tors’ courage and sac­ri­fice in the con­text of their times.

Frank tells us that he has come to re­al­ize “over the years” that slav­ery is morally wrong. I’ve known that since I was five. It is not only morally wrong, it is a sin, an evil. Frank seems to think that it was the South­ern evil, the South­ern sin. But in 1776, slav­ery ex­isted in ev­ery colony that re­belled against Eng­land.

It was the Amer­i­can sin. You know where most of the cot­ton went, Frank? It went “Up North,” mostly to the mills of Lawrence and Low­ell, Mas­sachusetts and other New Eng­land towns. You know where the prof­its went, Frank? Mostly to New York City and other Yan­kee towns. And you know who bankrolled slav­ery, Frank? That would be the bankers of those North­ern cities. And do you know where the slave ships were built and manned, Frank? Places like Bos­ton, New­port, and New York City.

The mis­take Frank makes is not un­com­mon. Among his­to­ri­ans it is called “pre­sen­tism,” try­ing to un­der­stand the past by ap­ply­ing present sen­si­bil­i­ties and moral stan­dards. But life doesn’t work that way. We must un­der­stand our past on its own terms and learn from it.

Now I’ve got some very bad news for you, Frank. The South did not fight to “de­fend slav­ery,” be­cause the North, led by Lin­coln, wanted the South back in the Union, with slav­ery. As a his­tory lover, you might want to take a look at Lin­coln’s First In­au­gu­ral Ad­dress. That’s the one where he says that slav­ery is not only Con­sti­tu­tional, but he rec­om­mends pas­sage of the Cor­win Amend­ment to The Con­sti­tu­tion, which would have made slav­ery per­ma­nent. That is a fact, Frank. Lin­coln, you know, called black peo­ple “the n-word” and thought they should all be forcibly re­moved from the United States. Yes, Frank, it is all in the his­tory books. Read them and weep. We all should.

The eman­ci­pa­tion of en­slaved Amer­i­cans was a re­sult of the war, but not a cause. Out of that car­nage came a re­sult that was not in­tended when the Union in­vaded the South in 1861.

It is also true that in late 1862, af­ter

Sharps­burg (An­ti­etam), Lin­coln wrote to Ho­race Gree­ley, ed­i­tor of the New York Tri­bune, say­ing that he didn’t care if the Union was slave or free, he just wanted to pre­serve the Union. So who are you go­ing to be­lieve, Frank, Hon­est Abe or the his­tor­i­cal re­vi­sion­ists of Yale and Har­vard?

(And while we are dis­cussing this prac­tice of “pre­sen­tism,” we should con­sider Lin­coln when we rightly vil­ify “white su­prem­a­cists.” Dur­ing the leg­endary Lin­coln/Dou­glas de­bates, Lin­coln said, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in fa­vor of bring­ing about in any way the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal equal­ity of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in fa­vor of mak­ing vot­ers or jurors of ne­groes, nor of qual­i­fy­ing them to hold of­fice, nor to in­ter­marry with white peo­ple; and I will say in ad­di­tion to this that there is a phys­i­cal dif­fer­ence be­tween the white and black races which I be­lieve will for­ever for­bid the two races liv­ing to­gether on terms of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal equal­ity. And inas­much as they can­not so live, while they do re­main to­gether there must be the po­si­tion of su­pe­rior and in­fe­rior, and I as much as any other man am in fa­vor of hav­ing the su­pe­rior po­si­tion as­signed to the white race.”)

I am a mixed-race South­erner. I’ve got Celtic blood, and African blood, and Na­tive Amer­i­can blood. I spent the first 19 years of my life in a black neigh­bor­hood. We didn’t have any elec­tric­ity or in­door plumb­ing. Our neigh­bors were like fam­ily to me. Dur­ing the Civil Rights Move­ment, I was shot at twice, suck­er­punched, and threat­ened daily. I marched, pick­eted, and sat-in. And I was jailed sev­eral times. So I don’t need any sanc­ti­mo­nious lec­tures about slav­ery or speeches about how evil my South­ern an­ces­tors were.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had it right. He didn’t have any cul­tural cleans­ing in his “Dream” that “the sons of for­mer slaves and the sons of for­mer slave own­ers would dine to­gether at the ta­ble of broth­er­hood.” Dr. King un­der­stood that we must ac­cept our shared and com­pli­cated pasts and come to­gether, bond­ing through our com­mon cul­ture. He would never have dreamed of tear­ing down memo­ri­als of the past which were placed in pain and love and honor.

If one re­ally wants to di­vide us there is no bet­ter way than to at­tack the sym­bols of our tra­di­tional cul­ture. If one wants to bring us to­gether the best way is to honor each in­di­vid­ual based en­tirely on the con­tent of their char­ac­ter. Dr. King was a gen­uine Chris­tian. He be­lieved that love can over­come hate and that for­give­ness is far bet­ter than re­venge.

Ev­ery­one in my hered­i­tary “tree” were South­ern­ers and they all sup­ported the South­ern cause. They were not fight­ing a rich man’s war. They felt they were fight­ing for the same thing their fa­thers and grand­fa­thers had fought for in the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, for in­de­pen­dence from a dis­tant and dic­ta­to­rial gov­ern­ment. And they fought like demons, al­ways out­num­bered and out­gunned. Those hon­ored on those sad memo­ri­als are our fam­ily, Frank. It is per­sonal. Leave them alone.


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