Make no mistake, the protesters in Charlottesville are Nazis. But American white supremacists take their cues from a far older influence: the Confederate States of America, a nation dedicated to upholding and extending slavery.
The United States of America’s peculiar obsession with race spans its entire history. The white supremacist Nazis who have rallied this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia are neither new nor unique to America, but are merely the latest stage in an uncomfortable and often violent relationship with people of colour that is sown into the country’s very foundations. There are certain things that set US racists apart from their counterparts across the Western world: the sacrosanct freedom of speech that has allowed far-right views to go unchecked, and therefore flourish; and the legacy of the American Civil War – fought over the right to enslave black people – that still informs and infects Southern culture to this day.
Visit any town, city or trailer park in the American South and you will see the Confederate battle flag flying freely. It has become a cultural identifier of personal liberty and conservative values, as well as regional pride and independence. But its darker associations are too readily brushed aside. For the Southerners who fly its flag, the Confederate States of America was a brave, honourable struggle to protect the rights and freedoms of good American citizens from the oppressive government in Washington DC that sought to curtail them. It’s a matter of pride, and slavery rarely comes into the equation.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, that every single state to secede from the United States in 1861 did so expressly to preserve the institution of slavery, upon which their economies were reliant. Indeed, Mississippi, the second state to secede, declared outright that ‘our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,’ calling it ‘the greatest material interest of the world.’ Texas went further, asserting in its own declaration that the United States was ‘established exclusively by the white race,’ and that ‘the African race […] were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in [slavery] only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.’
Maintaining the freedom to enslave the ‘inferior’ African race was of paramount importance; further statements by South Carolina and Georgia make it abundantly clear that this – and only this – motivated their decision to secede. In the so-called Cornerstone Speech in Savannah, Georgia, on 21 March 1861, Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens affirmed that this new nation was founded on the belief in the inferiority of black people, and ‘that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is [their] natural and normal condition.’ Despite the continued assertions of millions of Southern Americans, the Confederate States of America was proudly and unabashedly a white supremacist country, the sole aim of which was to uphold and expand slavery.
It’s difficult to appreciate the lasting significance of a defeated state. We might imagine that four years of bloody warfare and the emancipation of 4 million black slaves was more than enough to discredit the Southern elite and their racist ideology. This would require something akin to the radical de-Nazification of late-1940s Germany, and that was the intention of Reconstruction. With 4 million freed slaves given civil and voting rights, and the election of the radical Republican President Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, the scene was set for the dramatic transformation of the South. However, the febrile atmosphere of the post-war South and a 12-year Northern military occupation created the ideal circumstances for a new mythologised history to be written, one in which the South played the role of victim.
White Southerners soon found their power ebbing away. In a particularly striking example from 1873, the 123-man South Carolina House of Representatives had only 23 white members. Political journalist James Pike noted of this new black majority that several years earlier, ‘these men were raising corn and cotton under the whip of the overseer. Today they are raising points of order and privilege. They find they can raise one as well as the other.’ For the first time in American history, black people were playing an active role in national politics. Embittered and marginalised by the pace of change and their diminished power, Southern whites began to see the defeat of Confederacy as a national tragedy.
The Ku Klux Klan was one of several neo-Confederate organisations that emerged in response. Founded in 1865 by veterans in Tennessee, it acted as a secretive paramilitary organisation tied to the Democratic Party, committing acts of terrorism against freedmen and ‘carpetbaggers’ – migrants from the North – with the aim of restoring white supremacy to the South. In the weeks running up to the 1868 presidential election, Klansmen killed 2,000 people in Louisiana, and used intimidation tactics to suppress Republican voters. For example, Columbus County, Georgia cast 1,222 votes for the Republican candidate in the gubernatorial election of April 1868; by November, after a sustained campaign, just two could brave voting for Grant in the presidential ballot.
The Ku Klux Klan played a major role in efforts to restore Democratic – and therefore white supremacist – rule over the South.
Until a federal government crackdown in 1871, the Ku Klux Klan played a major role in efforts to restore Democratic – and therefore white supremacist – rule over the South. Their white hoods and burning crosses have survived as racist icons to this day. The secretiveness of their activity meant mythology could be constructed around them: they became the leaders of an armed insurgency against Northern occupation. Reconstruction, therefore, could be framed as a continuation of the Civil War, and the Klan as freedom fighters against political oppression, federal interference, and enforced social engineering. In this environment, the values of the Confederacy, that the Klan represented, were reconfigured into individual liberty and states’ rights. Slavery, while not forgotten, was quietly nudged into the background.
After the crackdown, Southern Democrats were able to use the spiralling cost and corruption of Reconstruction to finally wrestle back control over the South. Under the restored rule of white supremacists, Confederate apologia was allowed to to fester, and Southern ‘heroes’ like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis became symbols of a virtuous struggle against the North. Soon enough, black freedmen were back working the plantations in virtual slavery, and their civil rights were slowly diminished. Southern society had undergone little change. Worse still, a new mythologised version of Confederate history had been allowed to emerge, entrenching a belief in the legitimacy of the old social order. Reconstruction had been an utter failure.
With the Democratic Party back in total control, black people were excised from public life; the so-called ‘Jim Crow’ laws were employed to restrict black enfranchisement, and mandate racial segregation in all aspects of social life, from restaurants and transport to schools and housing. Empowered by the late nineteenth-century fashion for scientific racism and social Darwinism, Southern whites were able to create a brand-new racial paradigm, in which the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ race was proven superior by modern, ‘rational’ science. However, this new relationship ultimately had its roots in the master and slave dynamic.
So the Confederate States of America never truly died. By the end of the nineteenth century, racism was as entrenched as it had been in the 1860s. The persistence of state-mandated white supremacy was highlighted by the glut of Confederate statues and memorials that began to appear after the 1880s to remind Southern black people just who was in charge. Ironically, Robert E. Lee, the general most commonly celebrated in this way, wrote after the Civil War that ‘I think it wisest not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.’ But rather than simple memorialising, these statues underlined an untempered strain of bitterness.
50 years on from the Confederate defeat, a sense of a ‘Lost Cause’, of forgotten glory, of whites cheated out of their rightful place at the top, of brave Southern soldiers – epitomised by the now-deified General Lee – fighting against the overbearing North, still permeated Southern culture. Films like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939) romanticised their old way of life, depicting Confederate soldiers – and in the former, the Ku Klux Klan – as defenders of Southern values against barbarism, represented chiefly, of course, by black people. So powerfully mythologised was the old South, that the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, inspired by Birth of a Nation, registered 5 million members in the mid-1920s – 15% of America’s adult population.
The trouble with statues like that of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville is that, regardless of any heroic qualities he may have possessed, they can only ever represent that core concept behind the Confederate States of America, slavery, and the war it fought for the right to maintain it. Celebrating and lionising Lee, as the statue does, prevents Southerners from engaging critically with the fraudulent history established over the last 150 years. This thereby entrenches a belief in the fundamental nobility of Lee, the Confederacy, and the cause for which they fought. Even if most Southerners believe that cause was liberty from Northern oppression, it can never be detached from white supremacy and slavery.
Indeed, since these statues were largely put up during the Jim Crow-era, it’s abundantly clear that their primary motivation was not necessarily memorial, but to highlight the futility of the black fight for civil rights. Removing these statues of Confederate leaders, and banning the battle flag from public buildings is not, therefore revisionism or erasure. That white Southerners protest their removal shows how dangerously dependent their culture has become on historical mythmaking. The process of divorcing their history from white supremacy has to start with a widespread reevaluation of exactly what these statues and symbols represent. However, as Charlottesville, and 150 years of revisionism show, the South is too often averse to self-reflection.