Editor’s Note: In Chuck Thompson’s book, “Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession,” he examined the idea that the South really was different from the rest of the country, with lagging social indicators and more conservative values. Much of that is tied to its historical self-image as a “country within a country,” and fueled by the “Lost Cause” idea after its loss in the Civil War. Still, for many Southerners, the Confederacy is a source of pride, even if they don’t quite twig to the racist undergirding of the that idea. In this excerpt from his book, Thompson argues that not only is it impossible to support the idea of the Confederacy without supporting the idea of armed insurrection and the enslavement of an entire people, but it will be impossible for the United States to truly reconcile the two sides until Southerners come to grips with what their belief implies. Unlike the growing recognition of the genocide against Native Americans and the full-on admission of guilt in the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the third great racial shame of America has yet to be fully faced up to. Maybe Dylann Roof’s racist-fueled massacre in Charleston, S.C., last week will finally force that reckoning.
Civil War markers and various other monuments to white supremacists litter the South. Excepting Stone Mountain, Georgia, the most pompously defiant of these is located 75 miles northwest of Columbia in Abbeville, South Carolina. Walking past the granite obelisk dedicated to Confederate soldiery in Abbeville’s historic town square, the casual visitor would likely not notice anything special. The gray monument looks like any of countless similar statuary in the centers of cities and towns throughout the South.
Take the trouble to read the carved inscriptions, however, and along with the usual odes to the bravery and valor of the Confederacy’s battle dead, you’ll find this blatantly treasonous declaration: “The world shall yet decide, in truth’s clear far-off light, that the soldiers who wore the gray and died with Lee were right.”
Unbelievable. Imagine statues of SS soldiers inscribed with quotes from Mein Kampf in every little town in Germany. The Civil War is the only conflict in history after which the losers were allowed to write the history.
I read the astonishing assertion for a second time, noting that the monument was erected not in the emotional aftermath of war in 1865, but in 1906 and then, in a ceremony replacing the original with a new one in 1996. Two nicely dressed women in their sixties wander by and nod hello.
“The world shall yet decide in truth’s clear far off light, that the soldiers who wore the gray and died with Lee were right.” Not that the soldiers were patriotic. Or courageous. Or true to some ill-begotten sense of duty. They were right. The only possible interpretation of this statement is that the cause for which the South fought—dissolution of the United States in order that the South might preserve slavery and, thus, the economic underpinnings and political clout of its privileged business class—was a morally righteous mission.
And, by the way, if you don’t already know that slavery was the fundamental issue over which the South ripped the nation asunder, spend an hour with a slim volume by native southerner Charles B. Dew called Apostles of Disunion. Reviewing in 103 pages the major speeches and documents used by southern commissioners to argue the case for secession, Dew presents all the proof a sixth-grader would need to conclude that to southern whites states’ rights were a lot less important than the rights of southern states’ whites.
Go ahead, read that again. It makes sense.
It wasn’t until several months after my discovery of the Abbeville monument that I came to fully appreciate how completely its inscription distills the straightjacket of southern political orthodoxy that binds progress in the “country within a country.”
Walking down Louisiana Avenue just north of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.—the majority African American city whose right to voting representation in the U.S. Senate has consistently been blocked in Congress by southern politicians—I stumbled upon the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II. With a centerpiece sculpture depicting two cranes tangled in barbed wire, the monument stands as historic witness both to the valor of Japanese American soldiers who served in World War II, as well as the victimization of the thousands of innocent Americans of Japanese ancestry who were forced into wartime internment camps at home.
Attached to the monument, a bronze plaque bears the straightforward, powerful inscription: “Here we admit a wrong. Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
So striking. So honest. So liberating. Acknowledge a mistake, learn from it, and move on to create a better world.
How different this difficult but uncomplicated monument in the nation’s capital from the one in Abbeville, and the thousands of other chunks of granite and poured concrete defiance that blight the South with a destructive architecture designed to keep ancient hatred alive. One might scour the world for a pair of monuments that represent more succinctly the ideologies of two nations moving in such completely opposite directions.
Yet in these monuments, separated by only a long day’s drive, the observer can stand before the physical testament of one nation’s willingness to assume what Robert Penn Warren called “the awful responsibility of Time,” and another’s determination to forever hide from that responsibility; to cower before the future so that it might careen ever backward into a fetish of loss and disaster, dragging all those unfortunate bodies caught within its orbit into the same gluttonous consumption of perpetual failure, forever working to, as Randy Newman sang, keep the niggers down, be they black, white, brown, or yellow.
The southern “traditions” of inflexibility and sabotage have for too long hobbled American political progress. It’s time to unburden the future of a political race whose most powerful views, emotions, and ideas lurk forever behind them.