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.