A letter to the future from an old Southern man
There has long been a debate about how we who are descendants of the Confederacy and of its armed forces should feel about our ancestors’ cause and about our support of “The South” in its unique place in the social, cultural, and political world of the years since Appomattox. But in the last decade, that debate has been ramped up by those who feel that any and all positive mention of the Confederacy and its defenders should be erased from public view. Along with that has come the censoring of private affection for those who wore “the grey and the butternut.”
This is no longer a reasoned debate among historians in the faculty lounge. It is visceral, it is personal, it is completely public and it is extremely well funded by those who seek to destroy every positive vestige of the Southern Cause. My ancestor’s Battle Flag, which so many young men of the South died protecting, is now demeaned and vilified as if it were responsible for every social ill in the nation. And statues of heroic, truly great men like Robert
E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson are vandalized and spray painted with obscenities. And then they are removed, accompanied by lavish support from the media and from “progressive voices” in the media for the “courage” displayed by the cowardly vandals who commit these criminal idiocies.
“Intellectuals” and politicians may argue that this is the result of the cyber revolution in communications, or the ascension of Cultural Marxism, or the abandonment of our academic resources to the narrow and radical philosophy of Presentism. Or they may posit that the ever widening political and cultural gap between urban Americans and those who live in less populated areas has exacerbated the divide between us. The Heartland is more conservative, no doubt, but the power of the media and hence the persistent (and biased) messages come from our great urban centers, from an “intellectual” cartel that is clearly on the left of the political spectrum.
My own passion for the South has been, according to some of my friends, “messianic,” a phrase I think should be reserved for the Real Messiah, and not be applied to every citizen who becomes outspoken or passionate about the things he or she thinks really matter. But that passion, that honest concern has been a starting point for me. My “cause” was, and is, “The Movement” to bring the races together as neighbors who have shared that larger Southern culture, and to build a future together.
You see, I was one of those “redneck boys” who fought for integration back when that was a dangerous business. I marched, I picketed, and I “sat in.” I went to jail for a stretch, I was sucker punched and shot at and was a persona non grata to many of my former buddies for a few years.
When I left Chapel Hill in 1969 it was for Atlanta, the “New Capital of the South,” a booming environment of international investment, “big league sports,” and a thriving mecca for the arts. I got an acting gig the first day I was there, a union gig, no less. And over the years there I came to know the King Family, and befriended Andrew Young and John Lewis and Julian Bond and Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams.
And once I found sobriety in 1977, my acting career took off like a scalded cat. And that success led me back into politics, and eventually into Congress in 1988. And in 1998, the road led me back to the Blue Ridge, here, to a place I fell in love when I was a little kid from Portsmouth, just after World War Two.
The first speech I gave in Congress was a tribute to Andy Schwerner, James Chaney, and James Lowe, the three young Civil Rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi back in 1964 while registering people to vote. John Lewis, whose office was next to ours, joined me for that.
Since the advances in DNA research and genealogical resources, I have happily discovered my own African ancestors, descending from one of America’s first slave families in Jamestown. Gabriel Jacobs was a slave of the John Custis Family. He was married to an Indian woman named “Babs,” who was a freedwoman. (Martha Washington was a Custis, as was Robert E. Lee’s wife.)
Gabriel Jacobs was freed in 1690, and was the progenitor of the Jacobs families of North Carolina, a noted “Tri-Racial Isolate,” wherein families in the backwoods and swamps intermarried; black, white and red. (I suspect that if my “imperfect racial” heredity had been known in the 1940s, I would have gone to Pinners Point Colored School, instead of the “White School” on the other side of the big Atlantic Coast Line freight yard.)
The African American culture that surrounded me had a deep and positive affect upon me. For we shared so much: weather and work and language and music. And food!
(Sometimes we would drive out to Driver, Va., in Nansemond County to visit “Aunt Sally,” who helped to raise my father. Sally had been born in slavery.)
The Jacobs descendants moved South, into the swamps and wetlands of Southeastern North Carolina. In the censuses through the 1700s, some are described as “White,” some as “Mixed”or “Mulatto and some as “Negro.” Several “Negro” Jacobs men were awarded pensions for their service in the American Revolution.
In 1862, on the last day of the Richmond Campaign of the “War Between the States,” Gabriel Jacobs’ descendant and namesake Gabriel Jacobs was killed at Frayser’s Farm. Young Gabriel’s sister married Harley Jenrette, when he returned from “The War,” and their daughter Annie Jean Jenrette, is ( was) my great grandmother. These folks were all listed as
“white” on the census rolls of that period.
Those folks who call themselves “progressive” scoff at the television show that has greatly influenced my life. “The Dukes of Hazzard” had a huge Black viewership back in those heady days of primetime success. the same”, which was my mama’s mantra. Was it “corny”? You bet.
Was it “unsophisticated”? You can bet your broken axle it was. Proudly unsophisticated.
The presence of the Confederate Battle Flag on our show was never once an issue back in the 1980’s. There was not one complaint. Zero. And the fact that there are an estimated 85 million+ descendants of the Confederacy in the United States is a casually overlooked statistic. We are talking about family here. And voters..
( But increasingly in the years since, the left has blindly crusaded against that flag, especially after a photograph was discovered of the deranged assassin in the Charleston Church killings who had co-opted such a flag. They don’t seem to know or care that the symbol is an ancient one: It is the Christian Cross of St. Andrew, who was crucified in that “X” posture, a symbol that has been widely used internationally for centuries as a Holy example of sacrifice. ( See Caravaggio’s poignant depiction of that event)
There are still millions of homes that have “Dukes of Hazzard” toys, and that international popularity continues unabated, as I can certainly attest. Our guests at Cooter’s three locations are of every race and nationality. Several African Americans have shown up driving replica General Lee Dodge Chargers at our larger events.
So, as I see it, the St. Andrew’s Cross, like all symbols, obviously means different things to different folks in different circumstances. But down deep, it isn’t about affection for the South, or the death of St. Andrew, or the depraved acts of deranged racist. It is about the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
The current insanity of “cultural cleansing” rides high these days, especially when there are events like the death of George Floyd. In the aftermath of that event, there was an epidemic of destruction that applied to everything from Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City to statues of figures including Theodore Roosevelt, Benjamin Franklin and Sacagawea. Mr. Floyd was something of a thug, but no one deserved that death. And after a point it was obvious that the destruction had little to do with George Floyd or anyone else. It became a plain and simple “wilding.”
What we are dealing with is the absurdity of “Presentism,” the bizarre belief that current fashionable beliefs should be applied to events of the past. I would like to think that years from now people will laugh about how there were folks in 2023 who believed that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were “bad men” because they believed as many, if not most others commonly believed in 1776. But this non- thinking is real and it is fashionable and it is being given academic and political credibility by a lot of folks who should know better.
I knew a black lady whose black father had served with the Southern Army. She was a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy. After her death, I spoke at her memorial service. Her name was Mattie Clyburn, if you want to look it up. The national media completely ignored this remarkable lady and her passing.
If folks are going to condemn my ancestors by applying the absurd thinking of “Presentism,” I am going to face down those lies with facts. One of my outspoken allies in this is the liberal gadfly Bill Maher, on whose HBO show, “Politically InCorrect,” I appeared a couple of times. He recently said this on the subject: “It’s the belief that people who lived 100 or 500 or 1,000 years ago really should’ve known better, which is
What we are dealing with is the absurdity of “Presentism,” the bizarre belief that current fashionable beliefs should be applied to events of the past.
so stupid. It’s like getting mad at yourself for not knowing what you know now when you were 10.” (Or as Stanford scholar Russell Berman put it, “Presentism implies not only a shift toward contemporary material ( older material is denounced polemically as tied to dead authors, but an implicit structuring of time as always only present.” )
The great African-American economist Thomas Sowell puts it this way, “Intellectuals may like to think of themselves as people who ‘speak truth to power’ but too often they are people who speak lies to gain power.” I think that is what is going on in this plague of presentism. To insist that George Washington should be considered as a 21st century man in his 18th century dealings involving race and slavery is quite simply, idiotic. It assumes that Washington, or Jefferson, or anyone who had anything to do with the institution of slavery should be retroactively considered an evil blot upon American history. Well, had it not been for slavery, with all of its attendant and very real evils, it is likely there would be only a small percentage of African Americans in our nation today. That is perhaps heresy to many, but there, I said it.
The current craze of demonizing those of us who are not ashamed to be descended from those who fought for the Confederacy has a more basic danger. Dr. King’s message, which resonated internationally, was not just about equality and opportunity. It was about brotherhood and reconciliation. That is our long term task. In his powerful “I Have A Dream” speech, he said this, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
This has been happening for a long time now across America. But you wouldn’t know it if you don’t look for it. Because people get along, people who don’t care a damn about what color you are or where you came from don’t make news.
They just make friends.