When I was a boy growing up in Alva, Oklahoma I often heard people say, ” The South shall rise again.” I was vaguely aware that there was some pro-Confederacy sentiment in town but my parents always taught me that slavery was wrong. There were literally no black people in town so the corollary issue of racism never came up to me as a child. I learned from my mother that her grandfather, Edmund Robbins Mabie, had fought for the Union and was in Sherman’s famous march to the sea through Georgia. The family still has his war diary. On my father’s side, Simeon Ikins, my great-granduncle, was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg by the Confederate cannonade preceding Pickett’s Charge. During the 1860s my Baird ancestors lived in Indiana and did not participate in the war. So, I had a thoroughly pro-Union upbringing.
Two days ago I read in the Los Angeles Times that the Confederate Heritage Trust in Charleston, South Carolina, had sponsored a ball to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the secession of South Carolina from the Union in 1860, the first state to do so. The organizers of the ball said that they held it to honor the Southern men who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their vision of states’ rights. This is a common Southern misrepresentation of what the Civil War, or War of Northern Aggression, as it is sometimes called in the South, was about. The States’ Right that was in question was the right to own slaves. All other reasons that have been put forward by Southern apologists derive from the issue of slavery. How worthy of honor was this vision of states’ rights?
The white folks of antebellum South Carolina were very serious about preserving slavery. On December 17, 1841, the South Carolina legislature passed “An Act to Prevent the Emancipation of Slaves.” This law forbade any owner from emancipating his slaves. It became a criminal act to send slaves out of the state for the purpose of emancipation. Likewise one could not emancipate his slaves through “bequest, deed of trust, or conveyance.” This to me is an ironic interference by the state in the private property rights of individuals. Even the Bible, which clearly condones slavery, provides rules for emancipation. In South Carolina the state treasury would compensate owners for their loss if they killed slaves when they were punishing them for trying to escape. The Bible basically says that if an owner kills his slave, he has cost himself his own money. The 21st chapter of Exodus lays out the rules. The South Carolina law shows an interesting disregard for the Word of the Lord. In South Carolina the punishments given slaves who had attempted to escape escalated from 40 lashes, to cutting off ears, castration, branding, cutting the Achilles tendon, and death. They were clearly willing to do essentially anything to maintain the institution of slavery, now sometimes referred to as “the peculiar institution” and in Texas schoolbooks, “The Triangular Trade.” (The triangle refers to Europe, Africa, and America.) Next, in 1860 the South Carolina Legislature passed the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” Again it mentioned the rights of the “Slaveholding States” and referred to escaped slaves as “fugitives from justice.” Finally South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and the Civil War began. After the war some slaveholders still had to be forced by the Union army to free their slaves.
Now we have Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina who has said of President Obama, “We will break him.” DeMint later said he meant “We will break his momentum,” but he was not discussing physics and not discussing Newton’s laws of motion when he made his original statement. Senator DeMint has more or less appointed himself head of the Tea Party movement, a loose amalgamation of malcontents who are basically opposed to taxes with or without representation and opposed to government regulations and government spending except when they directly benefit. Their purpose seems to be to undo all progressive legislation of the 21st and 20th centuries and, perhaps, before. Rand Paul, recently elected junior senator from Kentucky, has said that he doesn’t think the federal government should enforce civil rights laws on private businesses. Even before the Tea Party movement, Senator Mitch McConnell, R Kentucky, the minority leader, and conservative Senators, largely from the South, have opposed essentially every proposal that President Obama has made. Indeed Senator McConnell has said that his number one agenda item in the coming two years is to see that President Obama is a one term President. Is this really the most pressing of the problems faced by our country today? To further illustrate the single minded, or perhaps mindless opposition of these men to the President, on December 22, the Senate UNANIMOUSLY passed an act to grant financial relief to New York’s 9-11 responders, an act that Senator McConnell had filibustered up until then. I believe that one can reasonably conclude that he was just being as obstructive as possible since he obviously was not opposed to the bill. In the end, this was a bill that no one could reasonably vote against and Senator McConnell relented and allowed a vote. What about Senators DeMint and McConnell or about President Obama could make these Senators so adamantly opposed to everything the President proposes?
Even more ominously we have Congressman Joe Wilson, again of South Carolina, who shouted, “You lie!” at President Obama during his first State of the Union Address. Such an outburst has not occurred in recent memory. They were common before the Civil War. The President had stated that his proposed legislation to reform health care would not subsidize illegal aliens. Joe Wilson said that it would. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said that it would not. Newspapers printing the bill’s wording showed that it would not. Congressman Wilson later said that his outburst was “spontaneous” and he called the White House to apologize for his “inappropriate and regrettable” comment. Southern gentlemen are often credited with courtly manners and conduct. Did lingering racism bubble up “spontaneously” in Congressman Wilson to overwhelm his courtliness when confronted with the fact that black man was now President of the United States and was threatening to have his vision of America trump that of the Old South? (His constituency was not particularly bothered by his spontaneity. Congressman Wilson was easily re-elected.) Does the same problem drive the otherwise seemingly inexplicable obstructionism of Senators DeMint, McConnell and their constituents?
What honor is there in any of this? Even if God condoned slavery in the Torah, in the subsequent 3,000 years Western Civilization has slowly and very painfully improved on God’s vision of morality. We have made slavery illegal after a bloody internecine war. In 1954 the Supreme Court made segregation in the public schools illegal, again over the protestations of the South, which again plead States’ Rights. President Eisenhower had to send in the National Guard to ensure compliance. Over fifty years later, we still have piles of evidence that racism is alive, and unfortunately, well and not only in the South. De facto segregation can be seen everywhere and “white flight” in response to threatened or actual integration is a common phenomenon. Now we need to make racism unconscionable. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take another 3,000 years.