Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“to distance oneself and one’s ‘tribe’ from atrocity and indelible shame”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 27, 2010

Guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf highlights a reader’s e-mail that seeks to explain Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s praise of the Citizen’s Council in his hometown of Yazoo, Mississippi, during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. (Within 24 hours, Barbour had issued a whiplash-inducing refutation of his previous comments, describing council as “indefensible.”) The Citizen’s Council (originally known as the White Citizens’ Council) was a white supremacist organization that, while stopping just short of advocating violence, worked to isolate and intimidate African Americans and others working in pursuit of voting rights, fair housing rules, and school desegregation (left). (The first known chapter of the White Citizen’s Council was organized in Mississippi in July 1954, less than two months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down by the Supreme Court.) While Barbour sought to portray the virulently-segregationist Citizen’s Council as an opponent of the Ku Klux Klan the two organization were, in fact, working toward the same goal by different means, and even had overlapping membership; this was evident even at the time, when the Citizen’s Council was variously known as “the uptown Klan” or “the country club Klan.” Local councils were, in effect, a more reputable alternative to the Klan, and included in their membership many local political leaders and businessmen, which enabled the councils to legitimize their discriminatory practices and wield a range of economic and legal tools to intimidate their opponents.

The reader writes:

As a Southerner born in the late 1960s, I’ve always struggled to understand what happened in the civil rights era back home. To be precise, I’ve struggled to grasp how my people — white people — understood events.  I’m from an extremely minor part of the Deep South, so insignificant that to my knowledge, it hasn’t been accounted for in the major histories of the era. The thing is, you can’t really ask older white folks what happened. If they’re willing to talk about it at all — which most aren’t, a reticence that may come from a reasonable certainty that they will be judged unfavorably by their children and grandchildren — it’s usually in a defensive, dismissive way. When Haley Barbour said the other day that he doesn’t remember things being all that bad in Yazoo City, where he grew up, I heard the voice of my parents’ generation. How many times in childhood did I overhear those people talking about how decently “we” treated “our nigras.” It may be hard for people not raised in this culture to understand it when I say that this kind of thing was not said with conscious malice (though it was obviously malicious in its content, not only because it constituted a denial of history, but shows the lingering sense of white paternalism and indeed ownership of black folks). When I was younger, I used to think this was evil, uncut. I don’t think that anymore. I think it instead speaks to the human capacity to distance oneself and one’s “tribe” from atrocity and indelible shame. . . .

My point, re: Barbour’s controversial remarks, is that I am neither surprised by them, nor do I hold him in as much contempt for them as many pundits seem to. I don’t mean to defend his remarks, but for me, I can place them in context. I don’t think he’s bullshitting, frankly. I think he’s wrong, absolutely; but I’d bet money that Haley Barbour is just like his contemporaries in my hometown, including my parents: they have genuinely convinced themselves that things were Just Fine Here, because it’s a way of dealing with extremely painful history without having to deal with it. And it’s a way of being able to look on all the nice older folks you grew up loving and respecting without having to reckon with the fact that they did horrible things to their black neighbors, either actively or by standing passively by. I remember what a shock it was to me as a teenager who was starting to read about the Civil Rights movement, to look upon the faces of older white people in church, men and women I had grown up loving and respecting, and to know (because I had been told) that that kindly gentleman there had been a Klansman back in the day, and that this one in the third pew on the right had participated in a lynch mob decades earlier. You think: “These are not the kind of people who do things like that.” But they did! Yet it’s easy to follow this emotional logic: “I wouldn’t be friendly with people guilty of such moral horrors, but obviously I am friends with these people (and even love and respect them) — therefore, things couldn’t have been as bad as the history books say, at least not here.”

It’s worth reading the whole thing. This writer’s perspective rings very true, and in some ways reflects my own experience. I also think it goes far to explain the willful blindness of the Southron Heritage™ movement, that vigorously denies, minimizes or rejects any historical interpretation that suggests a moral censure on the Confederacy, either collectively or on individual soldiers. It’s exactly the same mindset; Haley Barbour’s re-imagining of the 1960s is the same sort of rationalization modern-day Confederate apologists apply to the 1860s. They will acknowledge the evil of slavery in the abstract, but (1) quickly assert that their particular ancestors didn’t own slaves, and so have no personal connection to it (or responsibility for it), and (2) attempt to deflect or diffuse censure for the “peculiar institution” by pointing to New England’s historic involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, the mistreatment of immigrants and others in Northern factories, the role of Africans themselves in the slave trade in Africa, and so on. Above all, they will contort themselves into knots to claim secession and the war was about anything — tariffs, some vague philosophical argument for states’ rights, anything — other than what the secessionists themselves explicitly said it was.

Neither will modern-day Confederate apologists acknowledge any responsibility — not even a shared responsibility, much less being a prime mover — in the war itself. That, too, was all the North’s fault; it is a matter of faith that the armed conflict that followed South Carolina’s secession was “forced” or “tricked” on the South by Lincoln — even though the shooting actually started almost two months before he took office. The twists of logic here are remarkable as well; I saw it recently asserted that Major Anderson’s evacuation of his command to the still-unfinished Fort Sumter, a few days after South Carolina’s secession, was “the first act of aggression,” even though he did so to avoid a direct, military confrontation with the armed secessionists and, in the process, ceded to them the complete, well-stocked coastal battery of Fort Moultrie, the South’s first military “victory.” (While the notion that Lincoln “forced” or “tricked” the South into firing on Fort Sumter may seem to mitigate the South’s responsibility for it, and all that followed, it’s also an insult to those Southern military and political leaders behind it — Ruffin, Beauregard, Pickens, Wigfall, et al. — because it credits them with neither the ability to recognize they were being “tricked” by a supposedly bumpkin, backwoods lawyer from Illinois, nor for having the free will and agency to refuse to walk into that devil Lincoln’s “trap.” Seriously — the Sumter “crisis” played out over more than three months, so it’s not like anyone involved didn’t have time to think about the consequences of his chosen course of action. But I digress. . . .)

Friedersdorf’s correspondent goes on to argue that “one way to deal with one’s personal, or communal guilt, in the face of collective moral collapse, is to claim victimhood, displacing the blame onto others and renouncing one’s moral agency.” This, too, is readily apparent in the Southron Heritage™ movement; they wallow in being the victim. A hundred fifty years ago they were the innocent victims of radical abolitionists, the Black Republicans, “Beast” Butler and William Tecumseh Sherman; now they’re the innocent victims of politically-correct bloggers, weak-kneed politicians, liberal academics and “racist” organizations like the NAACP. The tenacity with which they cling to this victimhood is made all the more stark by their assertion, in almost the same breath, of their ancestors’ uniquely-Southern combination of courage, rugged individuality, determination and strength. They were strong, but nonetheless remain perpetually defeated; they were morally righteous, but removed themselves from the Union to protect the institution of slavery; they stand for the rights of the states and the individual, but revere a national government that claimed its own supremacy over the member states and imposed on its citizens the heavy hand of the national government sooner than did the Union. It’s victimology of the highest order, one that gains its resilience more from emotion and resentment than logic or historical evidence.

As a Southerner, and a descendant of Confederate soldiers, of slaveholders and at least one elected official who supported secession, I understand the gut-level desire to distance oneself and one’s ancestors from the undeniable sins of the past, and to take comfort from the notion that while someone, somewhere was guilty of those things, my relatives weren’t. But it’s a comforting self-delusion; as Ta-Nehisi Coates once observed, it’s like the abandoned child who imagines his absent parent is actually an astronaut, off on some exciting, secret mission to outer space. It’s comforting, maybe psychologically necessary, but a lie just the same. It’s not history — either collective or individual — which is often very ugly, and involves people doing things, saying things, and fighting for things their descendants really would rather not be forced to acknowledge. It’s a hard thing, but we have to do it. As I’ve said before, were owe it to those men and women to acknowledge and recognize them as they were, not as we’d like them to have been. To acknowledge with candor their failings, limitations and misdeeds is difficult, but to my thinking, it’s preferable to creating an alternate fantasy. That’s no way to honor one’s ancestors.


Image: Cartoon from the December 1955 issue of The Citizens’ Council, Jackson, Mississippi, via here.


16 Responses

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  1. Jimmy D said, on December 27, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    Hey Andy,

    Great post. I’m missing my Golden Horde fill today. Glad you stepped up into the void.

    Sounds like you and I have similar backgrounds. I learned recently that the original Jimmy D, one of my great, great ancestors on my Dad’s side, was both a lawyer – what a coincidence! – and a slaveholder – oops! – in North Carolina. And a rather prolific one at that, as he had several dozen slaves to his name.

    It’s certainly a tricky past to confront. But you are right – it does neither me nor him any good to gloss over this point. I didn’t know the man. Neither did my father. But he is a part of our history and family. All of him. So I’ll enjoy the homey stories, laugh at his ironic nickname of “Whispering Jim” (evidently he was a rather loud man who could be heard across town in casual conversation), and I’ll continue to identify with his fabled dislike of manual labor (hey, there is a reason I kept going back to school – I knew my career alternatives). But at the same time, I’ve grown to hold no reservations in my condemnation of his decision to hold other humans in bondage. Frankly, I don’t care if he was “good” to his slaves. Such a line is so often just another throw-away to displace some of the guilt. At the end of the day, he denied man, woman and child of their right to basic freedom – something he no doubt held in reverence as an American of any time.

    Such is the season that I spent a great deal of time with family over the weekend, with my wife, newborn son and I sleeping in a room at my parents’ home from Friday to Monday. It was wonderful. Sharing a hobby with parents always bodes well for gift giving. My father-in-law, the carpenter, loves encouraging my construction hobby with new tools at Christmas, while his wife, the amateur chef, has really helped me take my cooking to the next level by restocking my kitchen gadgets. But my dad, steeped in years of reading civil war history, nearly exploded when he found I’d taken to his favorite subject: A copy of Grant’s Memoirs, from my Pa, was the first gift I opened.

    But again, life is more complicated than that pretty picture. My younger sister dropped the n-bomb in casual conversation over beers last night. To my surprise, my whole family boo’d and gasped when she did it and her resolve at word choice was clearly challenged. Then again, that I was surprised at our collective reaction is telling. I knew where she had learned the word, after all. My dad, despite knowing full well the history, said it watching the Thanksgiving football game but a few weeks earlier – also not a first to my ears. But then, this is the son of a woman who, when Howard County Maryland’s only high school finally integrated, stood up in front of a room of her peers and offered her own daughter as the dance partner to the school’s sole black male student in reaction to the protest from other white parents ready to call off the function over the “what to do” conundrum of having the two races at the same prom.

    It’s a complicated history. But I don’t mind revering the high points, and shunning the lows. The alternative is ignoring half of it, and really knowing nothing at all.

    Hope you had a good holiday. Cheers!

  2. TheRaven said, on December 27, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Ivy League universities actively discriminated against Jews before WW2, and perhaps into the 1950s, in admissions and jobs. Yet no one talks about such discrimination anymore, except in context of historic anachronism. Two reasons why: (1) Ivy League institutions have made good-faith efforts towards diversity; (2) American Jews are, in general, quite successful.

    “The South” as a whole has no claim on “good-faith efforts towards diversity”. There are exceptional institutions and a few progressive cities, such as Nashville and Atlanta, but these are exceptions that prove the rule. Nashville, like Cincinnati, lacks an easily discernable black middle-class.

    Success of blacks over the past 45 years must have something to do with the old southern mentality refusing to die. It’s like black success – exemplified by our historic 44th President – fuels belief that things couldn’t have been so bad way-back-when, otherwise we would see so many well-educated, successful blacks, like this guy, right now.

    Except “that guy” is an extreme example of blacks rising in the face of southern apartheid. A child-leader in the Civil Rights Movement, (Freeman) Hrabowski was prominently featured in Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary, Four Little Girls, on the racially motivated bombing in 1963 of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

    Born in 1950 in Birmingham, Alabama, Hrabowski graduated at 19 from Hampton Institute with highest honors in mathematics. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he received his M.A. (mathematics) and four years later his Ph.D. (higher education administration/statistics) at age 24.

    • Andy Hall said, on December 27, 2010 at 5:58 pm

      Thanks. No discredit to Dr. Hrabowski, who seems a remarkable man in every way, but pointing to him as proof of the lack of barriers to African Americans in the South is ridiculous. What’s that quote — specifically about women in academic careers, but more applicable generally to environments of ingrained discrimination — “we’ll know that barriers are gone not when when a female genius gets an appointment to the faculty, but when a female schmuck gets an appointment with no better qualification than the male schmucks already there.” Something like that. The true evidence that barriers are gone is not measured in the success of the exceptional, but in the success of the merely ordinary.

  3. corkingiron said, on December 27, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    “I understand the gut-level desire to distance oneself and one’s ancestors from the undeniable sins of the past”. I wonder, Andy, if you aren’t confronting a foundation myth – something that mere history cannot compete with. History might tell us how we got to this point in time, but does little to tell us what direction to take from here; it’ still just me versus the cosmos. That’s where a foundation myth draws its’ strength – I am not alone – there is an “us” that I belong to – and they possess unique virtues that I get to claim as my birthright. I don’t mean to suggest the journey you’re on (you used that term in a TNC thread recently) isn’t useful or valuable – or that history isn’t important. It is. But it has been my experience that when people get emotionally wedded to an historical event or person, you are up against something quite impervious to evidence. They aren’t seeking to define their past, they’re seeking to define themselves.

    • Andy Hall said, on December 27, 2010 at 7:12 pm

      I’d point out where you’re wrong, except I don’t think you are.

      Someone else at TNC’s place observed that “you can’t reason people out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place.” Sounds like a foundation myth to me.

  4. Craig Swain said, on December 28, 2010 at 9:56 am

    I tend to put Barbour’s comments in the same box as that of Jane Fonda’s reaction to any questions about Vietnam. Everyone has some part of their background they wish to gain some distance from by rebranding or spinning (and anyone who would deny such is simply flying a false flag). It’s human nature.

    • Andy Hall said, on December 28, 2010 at 10:10 am

      The difference to me is that he’s not re-branding his own, personal history; he’s completely misrepresenting a critical part of the history of his community, state and region, that there are plenty of people still around to call him out on it.

      • Craig Swain said, on December 28, 2010 at 12:34 pm

        Andy, In both examples a person is rebranding or if you wish, misrepresenting critical parts of history. It seems you are splitting hairs. I would be happy to explain further in private, but I don’t like the political tone this is taking. So I’ll just leave it where it is. Thanks.

      • Andy Hall said, on December 28, 2010 at 1:31 pm

        Craig, I’ve withdrawn the example I offered; I see that it can be seen as swerving needlessly into present-day, partisan politics. Thanks for taking time to comment, I appreciate your input, even if we disagree.

    • Craig Swain said, on December 28, 2010 at 2:29 pm

      And let me clarify that I am not defending Barbour’s comments here. Just saying that this behavior is common place, which I think we can agree transcends politics, religion, or any other practice.

  5. corkingiron said, on December 28, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Damn – or should I say Day-um? There really is such a thing as a Southern Gentleman!

  6. Sherree said, on December 29, 2010 at 5:09 am

    This is a great post, Andy. Your journey is commendable, as is that of the author of the email featured.

    There are many histories of the South, though, as I am sure you know–many experiences–and not all of those experiences follow this trajectory.

    I was 12 years old in 1967. My parents were white Southerners with distant Cherokee ancestors. I did not understand how my Indigenous ancestors impacted my family’s history until relatively late in life, so, in 1967, I was a twelve year old white Southerner growing up in the mountains of Virginia.

    In my house, not only were racial epithets not used; African American men and women were colleagues and friends of my parents–all working at the Job Corps (product of LBJ’s Great Society) for the betterment of black youth and Appalachian youth.

    We mourned the murder of JFK, Dr. King, and Bobby Kennedy. I was called many names myself for standing up for the African American friends of my mother and father. In the 1970s, I sang along with Neil Young, and condemned the “Southern Man”. I later moved to New England and was shocked that everyone was not the product of an abolitionist history and that there were virulently racist men and women in the North who assumed that because I had a southern accent that I might be interested in their racist remarks. Now, after fifteen years immersed in Indigenous culture, I am shocked and amazed that the lessons learned in the rethinking and rewriting of American history caused by the patience, hard work, and insistence of African American men and women are largely lost when it comes to Indigenous men and women.

    There is so much more, but in all truthfulness, the amount of energy it takes to explain myself, makes the effort not worth it, because the parameters of the debate and of the narratives are set. Until white men and women throughout the nation understand what Ta Nehisi Coates understands when he says–“I claim all of it. I claim the worst of it“–African American men and women, Indigenous men and women, Muslim American men and women, Hispanic men and women will continue to suffer discrimination in every section of the nation. As far as Haley Barbour goes–I think he just learned that there is no turning the clock back to a time that he obviously considered to be one in which the “good old days” existed. Barbour–and men and women like him–can try, but they will not succeed. The Confederacy is dead. Finally.

  7. Lyle Smith said, on January 5, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Is Haley Barbour completely misrepresenting what he saw in Yazoo City, Mississippi? Possibly not. Where he goes wrong was not recognizing what the White Citizens councils were doing elsewhere, if not in his own hometown.

    My father’s experience of integration is on my point with Barbour’s because my father was a high school principal of an all-white rural public school during integration in Louisiana, just south of the Mississippi state line in fact. In ’68 he was taking teachers to Southern University in Baton Rouge for workshops on preparing for integration. So called White Citizen councils members in the town found out about this and started scaring some of the teachers he was taking to Baton Rouge. Fewer teachers started showing up for the drive down to Baton Rouge.

    Eventually a rumor was going around about how these men were going to run my dad out of town. My father, through a teacher, found out who was saying this and drove to the man’s house. With a rifle racked on his truck’s back window, my father drove to the man’s house and confronted him in person. My father told the man that if he ever showed up at the school he’d kill him, and if he ever set foot on his property he’d kill him.

    After that… the threats stopped. The school was later integrated without violence. The High School changed its mascot from the Rebels to the Chiefs (oops). My father got phone calls from people calling him a nigger lover, but once he started kicking black kids out of school he got phone calls from people calling him a honky.

    So it went. It was worse elsewhere though, and I think that is what Haley Barbour was trying to communicate. Not every Parish and County was the same throughout the South. Stuff that happened in some places, just didn’t happen elsewhere… so people didn’t see it or feel it. And in that sense Haley Barbour is not re-branding or misrepresenting his own history. It’s not like he’s saying segregation didn’t exist or there wasn’t violence… we can even infer that much from his comments. Now he is wrong to probably soften up the White Citizen councils actions, but if that particular group of white men in Yazoo City supported the non-violent integration of schools in Yazoo City… then that is what they did. And that is history that should be recognized as well.

    In conclusion my father, probably over a decade ago now, apologized to the man he threatened to kill. He had felt bad about threatening to kill the man. The town and Parish had long moved on though. The first African-American district attorney in Louisiana history (the late Charles Shropshire) was even elected from that Parish in 1996. Hardly anyone even knows this fact, cause his election was so ordinary… even if by the record books it was not.

    Things have changed, although some people weren’t as bad as we think they were either.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 5, 2011 at 3:45 pm

      Lyle, thanks for this long and thoughtful comment. I agree that Barbour was trying to put Yazoo City in a better light relative to other communities. And I’d be less crticial of him if he were some small-time local pol or the manager of the Piggly-Wiggly downtown.

      But he’s not those things; he’s the governor of a state, former head of the RNC, a successful lobbyist, and frequently mentioned as a presidential candidate for 2012. He’s a native, and now chief executive, of a state that lags the nation in almost all economic, educational and social measures, that has (arguably) the worst track record on race and integration in the second half of the 20th century. (Not for nothing are the innumerable bad jokes told across the South that end with the punchline, “thank God for Mississippi!”) My point here is not to bash that state, but simply to say that if anyone should be taking the time and effort to get his messaging on this right, it’s Haley Barbour.

      Edit: That last line is wrong — it not just about messaging and saying the “right” thing. As a governor — and one who clearly has aspirations for higher office — Barbour has an obligation to understand the real complexity of his state’s recent history, and to take the trouble to step outside his own, limited life perspective (as all of ours inevitably are), and recognize that others have a very different, but equally valid, association with Mississippi’s past. And present.

  8. Lyle Smith said, on January 5, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    Thanks Andy. Forgive my grammar and composition errors. I’m lazy and edit after I post, upon further reading. Bad habit. And I can’t edit after here.

    You make some fair points. It is definitely red meat for his political opponents and those who love to get in on some South bashing. I like to think I get the gist of what he was trying to say though, even if the Matt Yglesias of the world might not (and it’s definitely fair to scrutinize the sloppiness with which he addressed the WCC stuff).

    As to your edit… I’d argue yes and no. It seems to me his comments were meant to be about his own personal experience. He can only speak to what that was, and if it wasn’t Mississippi Burning, it wasn’t Mississippi Burning. That was his experience of that time and he has every right to speak to that.

    Should he of course go beyond his own personal history when trying to make a larger point about that era, as a leader of Mississippi… yes, I think so. As far as we know, he may have before. I’m not sure these comments are indicative that he hasn’t, or that he doesn’t understand the complexity of the time, or how other people experienced segregation and integration in Mississippi (he’d be really, really ignorant if this were the case and I’m doubtful he’s that ignorant). I don’t really know though.

    And we should remember he was responding to specific questions by the interviewer journalist, and likely didn’t control the conversation. He wasn’t giving a speech on Mississippi history.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 5, 2011 at 7:45 pm

      If you want to re-draft and resubmit, I can accommodate that. As Mel Brooks said in History of the World, “It’s good to be the king.”

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