In the wake of the terrorist killings in Charleston by admitted white nationalist and neo-Confederate Dylann Roof, many a voice have called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse, and in general, from American culture. That flag—actually a battle standard of the army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War—is prized by Roof as a symbol of white supremacy and segregation: both of which his recently discovered manifesto makes clear he supports. Much as the Klan and Neo-Nazi groups have brandished that flag as a symbol of their cause since the 1950s, so too does Roof consider it an appropriate totem for his.
Naturally, those who defend the flag, whether on statehouse grounds or a bumper sticker, have been quick to condemn any suggestion that the flag is a racist symbol. No matter the use for which it has obviously been put by overt white supremacists, including Roof, they insist that the flag and more broadly the Confederacy itself was not about racism. Indeed, they insist the flag is about “heritage, not hate.” It’s an old canard and one that we who are southerners have heard all of our lives: The Confederacy was about state’s rights, they insist, or tariffs, or taxes, or an intrusive “central government.” That anyone could still believe such things is testament to the broken and utterly pathetic state of American education. Much as some apparently don’t wish to believe Roof was motivated by racism and white supremacy, even as he said so from his own mouth before slaughtering nine people, many white folks appear incapable of trusting the very words uttered at the time of secession by Confederate leaders, all of which make clear that enslavement and white domination were not only the biggest reasons for their breakaway government but indeed the only ones.
It’s as if we shouldn’t take at face value the words of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, even as he explained in clear language that his government’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” Apparently some would have us ignore his plainly spoken assurance that:
The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution. African slavery as it exists amongst us is the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away…Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.
Far from an afterthought, overshadowed by larger ruminations on taxes or trade policy, Stephens took great pains to distinguish the centrality of racism and slavery in the South, from that of all past governmental systems, including the United States:
This, our newer Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth…Those at the North…assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights, with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just; but their premises being wrong, their whole argument fails.
And far from a one-off anomaly, Stephens repeated the arguments from his “cornerstone” speech a month later when speaking to the Virginia secession convention and seeking their entry into the new breakaway government. Prior to his address, the Virginia delegates had rejected secession by a 2:1 margin. Stephens was dispatched so as to sway them to change their vote, and in order to do so, dug deeply into his bag of incendiary and racist rhetoric to affect the outcome. During his speech he articulated the principle of white supremacy as central to the ideology of the Confederate government:
As a race, the African is inferior to the white man. Subordination to the white man is his normal condition. He is not equal by nature, and cannot be made so by human laws or human institutions. Our system, therefore, so far as regards this inferior race, rests upon this great immutable law of nature. It is founded not upon wrong or injustice, but upon the eternal fitness of things. Hence, its harmonious working for the benefit and advantage of both…The great truth, I repeat, upon which our system rests, is the inferiority of the African. The enemies of our institutions ignore this truth. They set out with the assumption that the races are equal…hence, so much misapplied sympathy for fancied wrongs and sufferings. These wrongs and sufferings exist only in their heated imaginations. There can be no wrong where there is no violation of nature’s laws…It is the fanatics of the North, who are warring against the decrees of God Almighty, in their attempts to make things equal which he made unequal.
Immediately after Stephens’ address, in which maintenance of the system of white supremacy and enslavement was the only reason offered for secession, the Virginia delegates reversed course and made the decision to join the CSA, suggesting that their decision to do so had nothing to do with state’s rights in the abstract, but the specific right of the states in the south to maintain the system of enslavement permanently.
One wonders, exactly how many times does the Vice-President of a Government have to say the same thing regarding his administration’s philosophy (and that of his “nation”), each time without correction or censure from his superiors or governmental colleagues, before we believe him? And when that Vice-President himself insists that other issues like trade tariffs had already been adequately resolved to the satisfaction of the southern states—as he did in his November 14, 1860 address to the Georgia legislature—who but a liar or a fool can continue to insist that it was matters such as this that animated the Confederate cause?
Although only five states ultimately issued formal declarations as to their causes for secession, those declarations leave little doubt as to the thinking behind the Confederate movement. Each of them noted that the “domestic institution” of slavery was their principal concern, and the one they felt was most threatened by the election of Lincoln. Whether their own states’ right to hold blacks in bondage, or the right of white settlers in the West to bring chattel there and establish new slave states, it was this end for which the breakaway states announced their secession.
When South Carolina’s legislature voted for secession, it reported out two documents from its convention. The first was a Declaration of Causes, written by C.G. Memminger, who would become the CSA’s Secretary of the Treasury. The second was an address to the other slaveholding states, written by Robert Barnwell Rhett.
In Rhett’s document—an exhortation to the other slave states to secede—he argued:
The fairest portions of the world have been turned into wildernesses, and the most civilized and prosperous communities have been impoverished and ruined by Anti-Slavery fanaticism. The people of the North have not left us in doubt as to their designs and policy…they have elected as the exponent of their policy one who has openly declared that all the States of the United States must be made Free States or Slave States…if African slavery in the Southern States be the evil their political combinations affirm it to be, the requisitions of an inexorable logic must lead them to emancipation. If it is right to preclude or abolish slavery in a territory, why should it be allowed to remain in the States?
His address continued by insisting that South Carolina hoped to be part of a “great slaveholding confederacy,” and, in an interesting clause, argued that it was important for those regions of the world (such as the South) “where the Caucasian cannot labor” to be “brought into usefulness by the labor of the African.” In other words, whites were too lazy to work hard so as to produce the wealth of the South, and Southern whites were completely dependent on black labor.
Likewise, in December 1860, Alabama sent commissioners to the other slave states to advocate for their secession. One of the commissioners was Stephen Hale, whose job was to persuade Kentucky to leave the Union. In his letter to the Governor of Kentucky, he asked and answered the question as to which “state’s rights” were being violated by the North. “What rights have been denied, what wrongs have been done, or threatened to be done, of which the Southern states, or the people of the Southern states, can complain?” he inquired, rhetorically. Then, he proceeded to provide the answer:
…African slavery has not only become one of the fixed domestic institutions of the Southern states, but forms an important element of their political power, and constitutes the most valuable species of their property…forming, in fact, the basis upon which rests the prosperity and wealth of most of these states…It is upon this gigantic interest, this peculiar institution of the South, that the Northern states and their people have been waging an unrelenting and fanatical war for the last quarter of a century. An institution with which is bound up, not only the wealth and prosperity of the Southern people, but their very existence as a political community…They attack us through their literature, in their schools, from the hustings, in their legislative halls, through the public press…to strike down the rights of the Southern slave-holder, and override every barrier which the Constitution has erected for his protection…The Federal Government has failed to protect the rights and property of the citizens of the South, and is about to pass into the hands of a party pledged for the destruction not only of their rights and property, but…the heaven-ordained superiority of the white over the black race…Will the people of the North cease to make war upon the institution of slavery, and award to it the protection guaranteed by the Constitution? The accumulated wrongs of many years, the late action of the members of Congress in refusing every measure of justice to the South, as well as the experience of all the past, answers, No, never!
Hale then explained that it would be best for the South to leave the union immediately, so as to maintain slavery, rather than waiting until new free states were added to the union and would be able to abolish it nationwide:
Will the South give up the institution of slavery, and consent that her citizens be stripped of their property, her civilization destroyed, the whole land laid waste by fire and sword? It is impossible; she cannot, she will not…Will the South be better prepared to meet the emergency when the North shall be strengthened by the admission of the new territories of Kansas, Nebraska, Washington, Jefferson, Nevada, Idaho, Chippewa, and Arizonia, as non-slaveholding states, as we are warned from high sources will be done within the next four years, under the Administration of Mr. Lincoln?…Shall we wait until our enemies shall possess themselves of all the power of the Government? Until Abolition Judges are on the Supreme Court bench, Abolition collectors at every port, and Abolition postmasters in every town…?
Hale’s fanatical commitment to the notions of white supremacy and African savagery was made clear later in the letter when he argued:
…this new theory of Government (as articulated by the Republicans) destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans…
He continued by conjuring up the fear that whites and blacks would be made social equals under Republican rule: a fate that, to hear him tell it, was worse than death, and that this fate would harm slaveowning whites and those who didn’t own slaves—clearly an attempt to inflame those without direct property ownership of slaves, in favor of secession.
If the policy of the Republicans is carried out, according to the programme indicated by the leaders of the party, and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern states. The slave-holder and non-slave holder must ultimately share the same fate—all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side-by-side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life; or else there will be eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting the destroying all the resources of the country. Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism, of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?
Hale then explained that a Southern triumph over the Union would allow the maintenance of slavery as its principal (and only mentioned) benefit, and would serve as a bulwark against black barbarism.
If we triumph…we can…preserve an institution that has done more to civilize and Christianize the heathen than all human agencies beside—an institution beneficial to both races, ameliorating the moral, physical and intellectual condition of the one, and giving wealth and happiness to the other. If we fail, the light of our civilization goes down in blood, our wives and our little ones will be driven from their homes by the light of our own dwellings. The dark pall of barbarism must soon gather over our sunny land, and the scenes of West India emancipation, with its attendant horrors and crimes, be re-enacted in our own land upon a more gigantic scale.
Just how much more proof do rational people need? How long before that which quacks and walks as a duck is recognized for the mallard it is? How long before apologists for the Confederacy are simply honest enough to admit that their favored symbol, the loss of which seems to threaten their very identity, is indeed no different functionally than the Nazi swastika, and of a piece with its ignoble message? The pathetic need for these stunted souls to cling to such a symbol and heritage as this bespeaks an emptiness, a vacuity of conscience, and a deep-seated identification with white supremacy, whether or not they are courageous enough to simply admit that. At least Dylann Roof, for all his other evils, isn’t a prevaricator on this point. At least he has been honest as to the true meaning of the images that he and so many others find inspiring. At least he is willing to announce his southern partisanship for what it truly is, and proclaim himself a solider in that centuries long battle, without pretense.
But now, and let us be clear on this point: it is time for the rest of us to finish that war, once and for all. It is time to bury the Confederacy and everything for which it stood; to destroy for all time the white supremacist culture that Dylann Roof and his compatriots so cherish; and this time, completely and without pardon. Not by violence, not by retribution, and not by exchanging hate for hate; rather, we must destroy the culture and system of white supremacy by our resistance to its logic, our opposition to its policies, and our insistence that we can and must do better. We who are white must end white supremacy by our actions of solidarity with our black and brown brothers and sisters, and on behalf of racial equity; by our refusal to remain silent, to collaborate, to put up with the racism of our friends, family or colleagues for even one more second. We must end white supremacy by showing up to insist that Black Lives Matter, not merely as an aspirational slogan but a moral principle, and that we who are white will defend that principle and the principle of multiracial democracy with our voices, our money, our bodies and even our lives if need be.
The next Reconstruction must be permanent.
Tim Wise, whom scholar and philosopher Cornel West calls, “A vanilla brother in the tradition of (abolitionist) John Brown,” is among the nation’s most prominent antiracist essayists and educators.