[Note: After a long hiatus – overwhelmed by recent events both public and private – I return to this blog with an adaptation of two pieces published last month in Salon. – NB]
Speaking in Boston just days before the South surrendered at the end of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass warned that the North’s victory would not mean that that war had truly ended: “That enmity will not die out in a year, will not die out in an age,” he predicted.
As a former southerner himself, Douglass knew just how deeply invested the South was in its slave-holding culture. He declared:
“I believe that when the tall heads of this Rebellion shall have been swept down, you will see those traitors, handing down, from sire to son, the same malignant spirit which they have manifested, and which they are now exhibiting, with malicious hearts, broad blades, and bloody hands in the field, against our sons and brothers.”
Six years later, in 1871, Douglass wrote that, “A rebellion is upon our hands to-day far more difficult to deal with than that suppressed, but not annihilated, in 1865.” He was speaking of the rising wave of mob violence and terrorism directed against African Americans all across the region. Like a “pestilence,” Douglass observed, “this last form of the rebellion – covert, insidious, secret, striking in the darkness of night, while assuming spotless robes of loyalty in the day – is far more difficult to deal with than an open foe.”
Has the age of “enmity” finally ended? Has the “malignant spirit” finally died away? Has the “pestilence” finally abated?
The answer to all of these questions is “no.” The hateful actions of Dylann Roof remind of us of that. So do the white supremacist websites Roof found appealing. So do the many Confederate flags displayed all across the South — and beyond — emblazoning T-shirts, affixed to car bumpers, and worn as lapel pins in business suits.
Douglass’s words remid us that the “heritage” these flags stand for was a bloody war initiated by the South. Those Southerners who fired the first shots to attack U.S. troops at Fort Sumter – just a mile or two from the church where Roof gunned down nine black worshippers – aimed not only to “defend” slavery, but to promote slavery’s spread across the nation, especially in the West. The defeat of the South was the defeat of the slavery system.
That defeat is still mourned by many sympathizers with the Confederate cause across the nation, who have somehow forgotten that the Lost Cause was the cause of slavery. To them, the Confederate flag is an innocent symbol, a symbol that honors the Confederate dead and preserves the memory of their gallantry and fighting spirit.
They believe that on their own front porch, or on their own car bumper, it has nothing to do with the South’s long history of racial oppression – nothing to do with slavery, the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror, and then Jim Crow segregation laws.
That’s wrong. You can’t pluck out the thread of that history without unraveling the whole flag.
I know many Americans, in the North and the South, who believe that the Civil War “was not about slavery.” That’s also wrong. Anyone who doubts me should read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s excellent article in The Atlantic, in which he quotes many Southern leaders of the time explicitly saying that they were fighting the war to defend slavery:
If Frederick Douglass were alive today, he would also ask all white Americans to reflect on the message this flag sends – inadvertently or not — to their black fellow citizens.
And he would probably say that all Americans who are truly opposed to the “malignant spirit” of racism should search their souls and ask if this symbol really does represent all that is best about the South and its heritage, including its belief in honor and courtesy.