The racist currently installed as President, by those whose greed, anger and hatred trumped human decency, has cavalierly referred to preserving “Southern Heritage” as the rationale for a ragtag group of demonstrators to rally in Charlottesville, VA. The ensuing riotous clashes and deaths caused many in that town to lament “This is not us.” Yet as an NPR report discloses in Tracing The Dark Origins Of Charlottesville’s KKK, the intertwined history of this bucolic University town and the Ku Klux Klan is problematic.
So it is in many of the more enlightened venues of what some dub the “New South”, connoting that this large swath of the American landscape has put aside its’ bigoted past. There is no doubt that in many areas of what is dubbed “The South” by American reckoning, there has been a more positive change from past oppression and bigotry towards people of color. Yet the underlying malevolent residue remains, encoded under the deceitful label of “Southern Heritage“. What that innocuous phrase is meant to connote is a long, proud history of the generations who have lived and died south of the Mason Dixon line. The truth of that history though, is one of a genocidal enslavement of kidnapped Africans doomed to the degradation of human bondage; the pursuit of a War of Treason that killed 800,000; and the institution of government aided terrorism known “Separate but Equal Racial Segregation“.
The turmoil in Charlottesville, VA began when leaders of the “Alt-Right” organized a “Unite the Right“ Rally “to oppose the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park.]Protesters included the alt-right, white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, and various militias. Some of the marchers carried semi-automatic rifles, swastikas, Confederate battle flags, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic banners and “Trump/Pence” signs.The rally occurred amidst the backdrop of controversy generated by the removal of Confederate monuments throughout the country in response to the Charleston church shooting in 2015 and growing consensus that confederate monuments belong in museums, not on pedestals.”
After that Charleston church shooting in 2015, there was a campaign to remove the Confederate Flag from Statehouse flagpoles, engendering controversy from those who felt that this was an assault on their “Southern Heritage“. This controversy occurred a year before the 2016 Presidential Election and so many were still outraged by the fact that America had a Black President. This defense of this heritage of treason and oppression could be said to have sown the seeds for the hateful rally in Charlottesville, VA. Using the flag controversy as a start point, let’ examine the truth about this odious “Southern Heritage”
“it seems most of the American population (57% according to CNN) views the [Confederate] battle flag as a symbol of pride not prejudice.”
I don’t doubt this statistic and I would have intuitively thought that sentiment to be the case. What is shows is merely how successful 150 years of Southern propaganda has been in turning traitors into mythological heroes. Since the end of the Civil War, the South has been cast into the role of defeated, but unbowed heroes, who were merely fighting for their beliefs. This was a relatively easy task, because in truth the majority of White America viewed and views, people of color as inferior. This is the “White Privilege” that I have frequently discussed. See my post “James Baldwin, Black Power, Jews and White History Week” , where I go into the mythological psychology of American “White Supremacy” and bigotry.
Part of my source for the following, is the book I’ve quoted here many times “Gunfighter Nation” by Richard Slotkin, who has delineated how the American mythological landscape and its politics have been shaped by popular myth-making. By using newspaper reports, the print media, “Dime Novels”, “Wild West Shows”, The Theater, and then movies, Slotkin showed how White American public opinion was shaped by the mythology of America as an heroic nation fighting on the “frontiers” of civilization, against people of color who were savage and backward. As I wrote in “Paul Ryan, Teddy Roosevelt, Adolph Hitler and Eugenics”: The Progressive Movement of the second half of the 19th century was led by Theodore Roosevelt, whose theories were influenced by the author Frederick Jackson Turner. Roosevelt believed that the “Anglo-Saxon” race was the most highly developed of all the “races” and that it was their duty to assume “stewardship” over all the more inferior racial types. Teddy Roosevelt became popular in latter 19th Century America as a Cowboy, Rough Rider and scholar of history, whose derring-do and manliness rode him into the White House. His views on taming the frontier and on the burden Anglo-Saxon’s had to uplift the inferior people of color fit in well with the Southern need to establish their victim-hood in the Civil War, by creating their own mythology of heroism.
Since the War of Southern Treason (notice how one can characterize things as memes for the purpose of polemics), the South has assiduously worked to reverse history to the point where they, the slavery states, were the victims. This was rather easy to do because due to our Western expansion, our nation was ready to deny our genocidal behavior towards the “Redskins”, by subsuming it into the necessity of “Manifest Destiny” .
“Historians have for the most part agreed that there are three basic themes to Manifest Destiny:
- The special virtues of the American people and their institutions;
- America’s mission to redeem and remake the west in the image of agrarian America;
- An irresistible destiny to accomplish this essential duty.”
As to the “special virtues of the American People”, I would add the adjective “White”, for after all who was taking away land in our Westward expansion? The Southern apologists of the post-bellum era, consisted in the main of Democratic politicians elected and re-elected in the South, on a platform of “Jim Crow”. However, as I’ve referred to above, the popular media of the time also was eager to blend in the myth of the heroic Southerner moving west after the Civil War. The wildly popular 1902 novel “The Virginian” was written by Owen Wister, a close friend and supporter of Teddy Roosevelt, who like Roosevelt had visited the West and was fascinated by it. The novel has been seen as the first “cowboy” novel, leading not only to a literary genre, but being copied ever after. Its’ hero is a laconic, heroic everyman who was only called the Virginian, in the book. It intertwined the frontier mythology with the mythology of the Southern heroic figure. The novel also served as a template for the “cowboy” movie genre, which in most featured a Rebel veteran, usually a CSA officer, dispensing a gunman’s justice out on the frontier.
Now the rising tide of the movie industry in 1915 produced the smash hit “Birth of a Nation” directed by D.W. Griffith. Griffith, a Kentuckian, whose father was a Colonel for the South in the Civil War, directed a wildly racist film, that was yet portrayed as a masterpiece of film making and was considered among the ten best American films ever.
“The film was a commercial success, though it was highly controversial owing to its portrayal of black men (some played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, and the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan (whose original founding is dramatized) as a heroic force.”
Controversial though the film might have been, it even had a private screening in Woodrow Wilson’s White House. President Wilson himself was something of a racist and anti-Semite. Read the intricate plot summaries in the Wiki link above and you will see this movie was a virulent, yet effective piece of myth making regarding the Civil War and the South. Especially in its treatment of the “heroism” of the Ku Klux Klan and the bestiality of Black people. Then too, only 21 years later came the incredibly successful novel “Gone With the Wind”, written sympathetically from the viewpoint of the Southern Slave-holding aristocracy and portraying Blacks as dumbly docile creatures, needing Whites for guidance. Three years later the film version was released and became one of the biggest movie box office hits of all time. Whereas the book showed more nuance and insight, the movie was a full on glorification of the South and softened the edges of the KKK.
“Black commentators criticized the film for its depiction of black people and as a glorification of slavery. Carlton Moss, a black dramatist, complained in an open letter that whereas The Birth of a Nation was a “frontal attack on American history and the Negro people”, Gone with the Wind was a “rear attack on the same”. He went on to dismiss it as a “nostalgic plea for sympathy for a still living cause of Southern reaction”. Moss further criticized the stereotypical black characterizations, such as the “shiftless and dull-witted Pork”, the “indolent and thoroughly irresponsible Prissy”, Big Sam’s “radiant acceptance of slavery”, and Mammy with her “constant haranguing and doting on every wish of Scarlett”
The success of this movie went a long way towards “rehabilitating” popular opinion of the “Southern Cause”, generating sympathy for the Southern Aristocracy and continuing to portray Black people as rather simple souls who need the firm direction of White people, or they wouldn’t be able to fend for themselves. I’ve presented merely a few of the many examples of how the false mythology of Southern Heritage has been imprinted upon the minds of White America. A nation’s mythology has a great power over the outlook of its citizens. Propaganda is mythology done in a form that subliminally influences people’s thinking on a subject of national interest. Mythology can blind us to the reality of the world we live in. All too recent examples of this being the “domino theory” behind the Vietnam War, which I wrote about here and the “This Changes Everything” myth that I wrote about at RIL on America’s two post 9/11 wars.
The mythology of the “Southern Heritage” that is held dear by those “good” Southerners who would decry the outcry against the display of the Virginia Battle Flag, is a creation of mythology of a time that never was. The reality of Southern Slavery was a horror perpetrated on people kidnapped from Africa, their history destroyed, their families separated and their domination continued after their emancipation. This was also the case with the Native American people as well. We see too the disparagement and negative mythology placed upon Latinos, many of whom were brought to this country to work crops for piteous wages and then cast aside.
Through the American mythology that was created to justify the unjustifiable, we saw State Legislatures enshrining a flag of a region of traitors as a reflection of their “heritage”, methinks they doth protest too much. Then again, it is tough to swallow that your adored ancestors were slave owners, or supported the slave owners cause. Even actor/director Ben Afleck, a liberal activist, found he couldn’t take the truth of his heritage on a TV program. Among the most powerful human defense mechanisms is denial. Almost all of us want to see our beliefs, person-hood and actions seen in the most favorable light and that causes many of us to deny a reality that stares us in our faces. The Southern heritage, portrayed by that battle flag should not be a source of pride to anyone and yet we see denied time and again that an organized system of slavery wasn’t so bad. It was that bad and its symbols should cause embarrassment to any that display them.
Then too, the Southern heritage, using heroic statuary to propagandize, elevate and mythologize traitors to the United States, like Robert E. Lee have no place in modern America as we try to heal and move on from the virulent and murderous racism of our past and present.