Judging the past by the present puts the future at risk
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.