Most of the white southerners whom I have known well left their region as young men and women, at least in part because of its political values. Several of them have talked very frankly about the psychology of their native region, and to them I owe some of the ideas behind this painful post. But meanwhile, other white southerners whom I never met have loomed large on my horizon for as long as I can remember: the barons of the House and Senate in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Senator Richard Russell of Georgia and House Rules Committee Chairman Howard Smith; the defiant governors, George Wallace and Ross Barnett, who rallied their white constituents behind segregation; and perhaps the most interesting of all, those like Senators Lister Hill and John Sparkman of Alabama, who were liberals on virtually every issue but race. Their fellow Alabamian Hugo Black had already been on the Supreme Court for twenty years when I became aware of him, and he had joined the civil rights coalition. So did Ralph Yarborough of Texas and Estes Kefauver and Al Gore, Sr., of Tennessee. I studied race relations in college with Thomas Pettigrew, a liberal white Virginian, and I have never lost interest in them. And thus, although the evidence I want to present today is primarily circumstantial, I think I do understand why the Confederate flag is displayed even today on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, and why it remains a potent symbol in white southern politics. I do not think it is primarily a symbol of hate; rather, I see it as a sign of fear, which in turn is fueled by a very bad conscience over what white southerners have done to black ones for five centuries.
Because slavery explicitly denied the full humanity of the slaves, it also forced the masters to suppress many of their own human feelings. Holding other men and women in bondage and forcing them to work, often with violence, is a brutal, degrading, and frightening affair. That is why, as I learned from Pettigrew, planters customarily delegated the dirty work to an overseer—a white without property, not infrequently from the North, like Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whom Harriet Beecher Stowe specifically identified as a Yankee from Vermont. When feelings between the overseer and the slaves became too intense, he was fired and replaced. But the real burden of slavery on the master lay in the fear it inspired, the belief, amounting to a certainty, that the slaves would gleefully take their revenge upon white men and women if ever given half a chance. And what is more natural, after all, than a belief that one’s slaves would treat one’s self just as one had treated them—or worse—if given half a chance? While some antebellum white southerners undoubtedly felt slavery had been a mistake to impose in the first place, nearly all agreed that to give it up would be madness. But the more extreme, who became more and more influential in the decades before the civil war, argued that it was a positive good that not only had to be maintained, but expanded. That was why they defied the will of the nation in 1860 and seceded rather than live peacefully under Abraham Lincoln, who was elected without any plans to free the slaves.
Four years later, when the Confederacy’s resistance finally collapsed and emancipation took place all over the South, the nightmare appeared to have come true. In the next ten years, the radical Republicans insisted upon black suffrage, and black governments ruled a number of southern states. They were not, as southerners claimed for a century, simply corrupt and inefficient: some of them were the first southern state governments to provide what even then were regarded as basic services. But the white power structure re-asserted itself through a campaign of terror led by the Ku Klux Klan, and eventually wore out the North. After federal troops left, the white elite not only terrorized and disenfranchised the black population, but created a new myth of “redemption,” arguing that they had saved their people from the horror of a race dictatorship. And until the 1950s, intimidation, including lynchings, kept the black citizenry subjugated. Then, fueled in part by the votes of blacks who had moved north, the federal government began once again to take an interest in the fate of black citizens.
Once again, this meant, to white southerners, the terrifying prospect of black rage let loose. In the 1950s reporters who went south to report on civil rights issues heard the same line from whites again and again: that they didn’t have any trouble with “our Negroes,” it was just the outside agitators from the North who were causing the trouble. That is why it was in 1962 that the Confederate flag first began flying over the capitol in Columbia, South Carolina, and why it was then that it was revived in other states. Once again the Yankees were threatening to unleash black rage upon white southerners, and symbols of resistance had to be revived. And suddenly, in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement reached its climax, most white southerners once again forgot every other issue, quit the Democratic Party en masse, and became the backbone of the Republican coalition. By the 1970s, a new rhetorical trick had emerged to conceal what was happening. Since it had become impossible openly to defend racism or the “southern way of life” (segregation), some new buzzword was needed around which southern whites could rally. Fundamentalist Christianity provided it, and “Christian values” became the glue that held southern whites together. It had become unfashionable to vote in favor of racism, but who could vote against Christianity? (This morning, Charles Blow of the New York Times noted that a couple of Fox News commentators actually tried to spin Dylan Roof’s crime as an attack on Christianity—even though Roof is a member of a Lutheran Church.) Dylann Rooff was inspired by the website of a neo-Confederate group that keeps lists on black-on-white crimes. When he told the parishioners that he had to kill them because “you are raping our women and taking over our country,” he expressed the white southern fears that have dominated southern politics for much of the last two centuries.
What is so painfully, dreadfully sad about all this, is how unnecessary it all has been. Slave rebellions in the antebellum South were extremely rare, and attacks upon whites after emancipation seem to have been even rarer. Having been thoroughly intimidated by slavery, new black citizens would have been more than happy to exercise the benefits of citizenship peacefully—but this they were not allowed to do. Black violence has always been more directed against other blacks than against whites. Still, the election of Barack Obama still symbolized, for many southerners, their worst nightmare, and white southerners have become more solidly Republican than ever in the Deep South. And so respectful are Republican politicians of white southern fears that not a single Republican presidential candidate dared suggest that the Confederate flat come down on the state capitol grounds.
Since I first drafted this post, however, an extraordinary wind of change has blown around the South. Governor Nikki Haley os South Carolina is to be commended for taking the lead. It is interesting that when the South Carolina legislature decided to fly the flag at a Confederate memorial on the grounds, it specified that only a 2/3 vote of both houses could overturn their decision. That, too, looks like an attempt to defend the views of white folks against a growing minority tide. But the South Carolina legislature has quickly come around, and a vote to remove the flag seems certain. Similar moves to take Confederate flags off of license plates and remove statues of prominent Confederates from state capitols are gaining ground, and white Mississippians are talking about removing the Confederate battle flag from their state flag.
Wednesday morning’s New York Times describes what is happening at length, and includes a remarkable quote from a South Carolina state legislator with a famous name. “Our ancestors were literally fighting to keep human beings as slaves, and to continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will,” said State Senator Paul Thurmond, a Republican, explaining that he would vote to remove the flag. “I am not proud of this heritage,” said Mr. Thurmond, the son of Strom Thurmond, the former governor and United States senator who was a segregationist candidate for president in 1948. To be quite frank, I had given up on ever hearing any white southern politician say words like those. Senator Thurmond has used his family’s prestige to try finally to move his state and his region forward. He is a great American.