While the rebels were defeated more than 155 years ago, it’s clear from Donald Trump and his GOP cult that the Confederacy has survived. Watching Trump’s hate-filled presidency—preventable mass death, raging indecency, and incitement of violence—has been a reality check.
Trump’s deadly pandemic neglect and his project of disunion in America are treason metastasized yet again in an America that exists halfway between Jefferson Davis and George Wallace. In a devastating rebuke on Twitter, Trump was recently asked to pick a flag: Old Glory or the Stars and Bars—the “very fine people” whose bigoted hate crimes Trump has egged on.
This is the right question, and, unfortunately, America has still not extinguished the influence of the Confederacy now inbred in a hateful minority of bigots. Abraham Lincoln’s legacy looms monumentally large as a moral vision for national unity.
But it is really the unsung project of Charles Sumner, the most ferociously abolitionist U.S. senator in history, to end both the traitorous Confederacy and its racist foothold.
Sumner is most remembered for enduring the wrath of Southern savagery when South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks attacked him with a cane, leaving him disabled for the remainder of his life, after a speech condemning slaveholders, including Palmetto State Senator Andrew Butler, who was Brooks’ cousin.
That was before the war, in 1856. But it is Sumner’s unrequited vision of American equality and renewal after the war to which we must turn in 2020. As the reunification process proceeded in the late 1860s, Sumner insisted that the rebel territories do more than concede defeat. In his February 1870 remarks on the readmission of Mississippi, Sumner asserted that it was the responsibility of a U.S. central authority to ensure that “promises [of racial equality] are in no respect neglected, and that the republic, one and indivisible, dedicated to human rights, and an example to mankind, is upheld in every part of our widespread country.”
Sumner warned the nation that Southerners would continue to cling to their affinity for states’ rights even as they so blatantly violated human rights in the racist systems established in their former states. Ex-Confederates already had begun to justify their terrorism against Black Americans with the “ancient pretension” and “putrid corpse” of the antebellum Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which had equated human flesh with property.
Unlike the leniency that animated Lincoln’s tolerance and later President Grant’s approach to readmitting rebel territories, Sumner argued that in their treasonous secession, Southerners had forfeited jurisdiction over Southern property and that reunification must be attached to clear preconditions guaranteeing the formerly enslaved livelihood.
With this in mind, Sumner offered a bill that would deliver 300,000 Black Union soldiers “homesteads on the lands confiscated from the rebels” after they returned honorably from service in the Union Army. It was not only Lincoln and Grant who did not go far enough.
Perhaps most revealing is that the first Black U.S. Senator, Hiram Revels of Mississippi, whose appointment Sumner championed, likewise failed to demand such conditions for reunification. Sumner had helped pave Revels’ admission into the chamber as its first Black member with an impassioned speech that dispelled opponents’ rejection of his citizenship. His speech was a spirited defense of Revels and Black integration in reunited America.
But once he was admitted to the Senate, Revels considered the readmission of Georgia based on a wishful unreality. Revels had described Mississippi as the model of a reconstructed state free of racial violence. “The people now, I believe, are getting along as quietly, pleasantly, harmoniously, and prosperously as the people are in any of the formerly free States… I do not think my statement exaggerates anything at all.” While playing the aspiring peacemaker, Revels displayed stunning naïveté about the continued brutality against Black Americans in Mississippi and across the South.
Constitutional scholar Richard Primus has analogized that the fate of Revels was akin to that of Reconstruction: “Once the war ended, the Constitution picked up more or less where it left off. Yes, Black men were now citizens, and Hiram Revels could even sit in the Senate…But when he journeyed to Washington to take his seat, he would have to travel in separate colored compartments.”
Revels’ presence as an admitted member of the Senate was straddling the edge of what was politically viable—and the progress was largely illusory. Sumner likely understood the fragility of the Senator’s newfound political office in a state that had wished to deny him and the citizens of his race basic rights and instead would have sold them into bondage.
For his part, Sumner had devoted his legislative energies to the interests of Black Americans and, in pursuit of their future, land ownership, so “they could never be re-enslaved.” Sumner believed the transfer of Confederate-owned plantations to Black Americans was essential for them to have an honest shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in America. The failure to realize his vision for their lasting economic, social, and political empowerment in the United States led to Jim Crow’s decades-long subjugation.
The memory of Lincoln will hopefully help the nation rescue the Union and elect President Biden. But in order to achieve permanent national unity and equality, let us embark on the Sumner Project—remembering Charles Sumner’s unique courage and foresight. That means not only electing a new administration but also implementing policies that forcefully ensure Black equity made abundantly necessary in the disproportionate COVID deaths and health outcomes exposed by the pandemic.
If we can do so, we will forever reject disunion in principle and practice. And, yes, that begins with unshackling America from the authoritarian neo-Confederate grip of Donald Trump.