It was not just that President Donald Trump did not defend this country’s most cherish values and the diversity that lies as a central strength. It was that when he did speak, he said that we should “cherish our history,” and there’s no way to interpret this except as a an intentional message aimed at white supremacists and neo-Confederates.
Let’s put this simply: there is no history to cherish when it comes to Confederate statues. They were placed in prominent civic sites across the South as a means of intimidating African Americans and sending the message that the Confederacy may not have won the war but its beliefs were living on.
This is the real history. It is ugly and it is obvious. Because of it, we have no patience with apologists or for those who peddle revisionist history about white supremacy.
In an article for MLK50, Confederates’ Lost Cause still cripples the South’s economy, I chronicled the history of the Lost Cause mythology in Memphis. There is no argument about the racist underpinnings for the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis in prominent Memphis parks. The article provides the context for the Forrest statue and its connections to national Confederate Veterans conventions in Memphis in the first couple of decades in the 20th century and the 1964 erection of the Davis statue just days before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Here’s the article:
A direct line runs from the myth of the Lost Cause to the reality of lost opportunity in much of the Deep South.
To understand this, you only need to compare a map of the slave states of the Old South at the time of the Civil War to present-day maps that show America’s most entrenched poverty, low educational attainment, poorest health outcomes and sputtering economies. The maps are almost identical, illustrating how clinging to romanticized notions of Confederate heritage in the Deep South Confederate states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas — later joined by Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia — led to an economy dependent on worker exploitation, low wages and low government investment in human capital.
The 2014 U.S. Census shows the South has the highest percent of population living in poverty of all regions — 17 percent; the highest percent of adults reporting fair or poor health — 20 percent; highest rate of infant mortality — 6.7 deaths per 1,000 live births; and lowest educational attainment, with 10 states of the Confederacy finishing among the bottom 18 states in high school graduation. In rankings of the 50 largest metro areas, the Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area persistently ranks in the bottom in these same indicators.
The maps make a persuasive case that the Lost Cause has been a drag on the former Confederate states: The willful twisting of historical fact shaped economic decisions that still cost the South opportunity and prosperity today, when success is defined by high-skilled, highly educated workers in an infrastructure that connects cities to a global marketplace.
And yet, the revisionists persist, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which held its “reunion gathering” in Memphis July 18–23 aimed at “insuring (sic) that a true history of the 1861–1865 period is preserved for future generations.” It’s a place where the false history about the antebellum South features stories about state’s rights, chivalry and heroism, happy and faithful slaves treated as members of the family, and stoic Southern women who sacrificed their loved ones to the cause of liberty and freedom, all while explaining away the racism memorialized in statues like those of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis.
If the Lost Causers were merely confederates in rewriting American history, it would be easy to dismiss them as sound and fury signifying nothing; however, their attitudes and beliefs for 150 years have perpetuated discrimination, marginalized African Americans, deprived equal rights and built an economy predicated on low-skill workers.
This distortion of history was embraced and propelled by Hollywood, beginning with the heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915’s Birth of a Nation and continuing with dozens of films into the 1970s built around sympathetic portrayals of noble former Confederate soldiers. It was a theme powered by 1936 best seller, Gone With the Wind, which won a Pulitzer Prize and became an influential movie in 1939 that won eight Academy Awards, including best picture. As popular culture advanced the Lost Cause narrative, Hollywood consistently ignored the horrors of slavery and pretended that the forced labor of millions of men and women was just a footnote, instead of the primary cause, that led to the South’s secession from the Union.
Neo-Confederates sentimentalize the stories and assert that it was economic and cultural issues that drove the Confederate states out of the Union, but all of the arguments lead to the same place: Preserving slavery was the motivating issue for secession and war. Any other reading of history is disingenuous, deceitful and odious.
In time, it was not considered genteel in the South to defend slavery, so it had to be explained in other ways — ways like heroism. The Lost Cause became the force behind the instruments of white supremacy, expressed by the naming of parks and streets and the erection of statues and monuments honoring heroes of the Confederacy.
The message to African Americans was unequivocal: We may not have won the war, but we will not abandon the core beliefs that sent us to battle.
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