By C.W. Cannon, The Lens contributing opinion writer |
As we trudge into the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Confederacy, we can take heart that commemorations of the four-year fight to preserve slavery are paltry—especially when compared with the centennial in 1961. The cult-like adoration of all things Confederate seems to have dwindled to “a niche issue.” So notes Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Fausset in coverage of preparations for Montgomery, Alabama’s recent salute to Confederate President Jeff Davis. Even Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has distanced himself from pressure to issue a license plate honoring the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
Of course, the “niche” is probably much larger than the crowd who actually showed up in Montgomery in Confederate grays and waved a flag that, these days, is more evocative of cross-burnings and mid-20th century lynch mobs than the disastrous military failure that Davis presided over.
It is a commonplace now to acknowledge that the mythology of the “Olde South” was largely a creation of the Jim Crow era that dawned, not in 1861, but long about 1900. Perpetrators of the bogus history include New Orleans’ own Grace King, the writer and memoirist.
Business leaders embarrassed by what’s left of the Confederacy cult, urge re-enactors and others of the faithful to keep the racism under their hats. It’s time to “bury” or “break with” the past, they whisper.
But why yield that past to a bogus mythology? Why not promote an accurate, de-romanticized account of the second half of the nineteenth century — why not tell the truth?
In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. famously predicted that the South would one day recognize its “true heroes.” Departments of tourism from Memphis to Montgomery are doing just that by shifting focus from the Civil War to Civil Rights. But simply adding Civil Rights memorials down the street from Civil War memorials still leaves us with a duty to correct public misunderstanding of what those war memorials really stand for.
The misty idyll of an antebellum utopia and of a Confederate government that could be construed as democratic in any loose sense (even for white people) is not only wildly delusional, it also is a slap in the face of black Americans and anyone else who has come to appreciate that racism is a sickness, not a sustainable basis of governance. It’s tragic that ownership of white Southern history, particularly of the Civil War period, is so often ceded to fantasists like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group that organized the Montgomery to-do.
The true “rebels” of the white South are the scalawags, those brave outliers who dared to speak against slavery and the deadly injustices of the Jim Crow era, and then joined in support of the Civil Rights movement.
It took courage. New Orleans’ greatest 19th Century writer, George Washington Cable, was hounded out of town by threats to himself and his family for supporting equal rights for his black neighbors. Some didn’t make it to safety, among them the three white unionists killed alongside fifty black victims of the 1866 Mechanics’ Institute riot.
Instead of a “Confederate Memorial Hall,” New Orleans needs a serious and scholarly museum that traffics in the truth about the Civil War and the betrayal of hard-won human rights and dignity that followed Reconstruction. I’d also love to see a plaque in my neighborhood park, Washington Square in the Marigny, pointing out that it was the scene of large pro-Union rallies during the Civil War. Instead of arguing over where to hide the Liberty Place monument celebrating the outburst of white mob violence that helped crush Reconstruction, why not argue over how best to acknowledge that Louisiana’s was the most progressive state constitution of the Reconstruction era, a document drafted by Afro-American, Afro-Creole, and, yes, native-born white delegates.
Recognizing the handful of white Southerners of extraordinary courage who supported Reconstruction, organized a bi-racial tenant farmers’ union in the 1930s or walked on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement is not only historically truthful, but provides a “usable past” for young white Southerners in search of role models — men and women who look and talk like them and share their distinctive and beautiful culture, but who don’t demand hatred of other Americans as the price of admission.
Politics aside, the obsessive focus on the military culture of the Civil War ignores the internationally celebrated cultural triumphs of black and white Southerners in the long period since then, most of which are results of racial mixing, not separation. Among authors, critiques of antebellum, Confederate, and Jim Crow society are rampant. To the list that includes Cable and Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor, we could add Fannie Flagg, or Charles Frazier, whose novel, Cold Mountain, shows how the Confederate government brutalized white Southerners as well as black ones. Our music is our greatest achievement, whether it’s the work of Louis Armstrong or Louis Prima, Muddy Waters, Janis Joplin, Mac Rebennack, or Aaron Neville singing “Tell it like it is” – an excellent idea, whether yours is the language of love or of history.
Let’s remember that country music legend Hank Williams found his first role model in a black Montgomery street musician named Rufus ‘Tee-tot’ Payne; that Elvis Presley was deeply indebted to black genius, something he readily acknowledged even if his early audiences weren’t quite ready to admit it. Willie Nelson is a worldwide icon of the true Southern “rebel,” but in a way that has nothing to do with the rich planters who drove the South into a ditch 150 years ago.
In sum, on this, the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy’s founding, let’s celebrate the scalawag, those among us with the courage and strength of vision to look beyond the horizon and see our gift for culture and civility, rather than clinging to an official myth that masks a tortured past, a myth that was never true but that continues to divide.
Remembering the forgotten dissidents of Southern history and celebrating the true cultural glories of the region are the best revenge against the Confederacy. Its cultists have done enough real damage to whites and blacks alike and even in their vitiated condition continue to make us all look at least a little bit ridiculous.
C.W.Cannon is a descendant of Confederate veterans and of Civil Rights Movement veterans (his parents). He is now the 2010-2011 Fulbright Professor of American Civilization at Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, Sénégal.