In the first post in this series, I shared my early understanding of the Civil War and the picture of history that had been painted for me. In the second post, I outline my discovery of actual records and documents deepened my dismay. In the third post, I described my reaction to some of the political speeches and memoirs of Southern leaders and detail how they helped to end my belief in the Lost Cause narrative. This fourth and final post in the series draws some conclusions about the Lost Cause narrative and the errors we continue to make.
The False Narrative Continues
History is a fluid thing. Events are factual. Reports on these facts can and do vary. Beyond these difficulties, there is the problem of interpretation. Given the vital need to repair the breach in our still burgeoning nation, the Lost Cause narrative, though lamentable and regrettable now, made some semblance of sense at the time. Over time, it became the grounds for a second civil religion according to Charles Reagan Wilson. In his book, Baptised in Blood, he describes the Lost Cause in great detail. In the following quote from that book, you will see how the Church was compromised to accomplish the goal of the Lost Cause.
In The Lost Cause (1866), the Richmond editor Edward a. Pollard called for a “war of ideas” to retain the Southern identity. The South’s religious leaders and laymen defined this identity in terms of morality and religion: in short, southerners were a virtuous people. Clergymen preached that southerners were the Chosen people, peculiarly blessed by God period quote in a word comma and quote says Samuel S. Hill, a leading historian of Southern religion, “many southern white have regarded their Society as God’s most favored.” To a greater degree than any other, theirs approximates the ideals the almighty has in mind for mankind everywhere.” This attitude helped wed southern churches to southern culture. As Hill points out, the “religion of the Southern people and their culture have been linked by the tightest bonds. That culture, particularly in its moral aspect, could not have survived without the legitimating impetus provided by religion. The coexistence help enable southern values and institutions to survive in the face of internal spiritual contradictions and external political pressures pressures. For the South to stand, its people had to be religious and its churches the purest anywhere.” Unfortunately the self image of a chosen people leaves little room for self criticism. This deficiency has led to the greatest evils of the religion-culture link in the south.
Where does this leave the Church today? To put it simply, church leaders must call for self-criticism and self-examination to find those faults within our culture that we have been taught to ignore. We must especially seek out those we have been taught to glorify. Once we do this, we can see, through the benefit of hindsight, that this willingness to gloss the evils of sedition and slavery has only served to empower those who would embrace the evils of racism and bigotry.
The Lost Cause narrative has made us unwilling accomplices in the cause of white supremacy. Poll after poll indicate that we decry the efforts of white supremacists. Most of us find them to be lazy thinkers and people who parlay ignorance into power. But our efforts to glorify and honor the political and military leaders of the confederate states are based on a myth that has little basis in evidence.
Though we are unwilling accomplices to white supremacy, we are often willing accomplices in the erection of these statues. And because these statues had a more nefarious purpose, we must be plain about our role in those efforts. When plotting the dates upon which statues were erected, schools were named, or memorials were established honoring confederate figures, it becomes readily apparent that the timing coincided with periods of heightened oppression of the African American community.
Between the naming of schools and parks and the erecting of statues and public memorials honoring confederate leaders, these figures were honored at a most prodigious rate during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era.
Obviously, we can prove correlation with this graphic, but we cannot prove causality. Those who support statues honoring confederate leaders can not be convicted of racism and bigotry by circumstantial evidence of this type. But we have to realize that these actions do provide cover, intentionally or not, for those who do espouse racism.
But how are we aiding racists and white supremacists?If you're evil and you're using my symbols and claiming my culture, it's time for me to examine why that is the case. Click To Tweet
The plain truth is that we are asking African Americans to walk or drive past the bronze figures of people who, if they were still alive and had their way, would see to it that they were slaves. That message is abhorrent, even if it isn’t what we mean by these statues. This unintentional message is all the worse, for there are those among us who actually do intend that very message.
Some leaders believe that those motives were implicit in the very idea of the statue from the very beginning. In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently authorized the removal of three public monuments to white supremacy. “These statues were a part of … terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city,” he said in his public remarks around the issue.
Whether we doubt the motives or not, we can be certain of the results. By erecting those statues, we gave the neo-Nazis and the KKK a rallying point. There is a reason that they end their marches at statues erected to confederate figures. There is a reason that white supremacists carry those names on their shields and banners. There is a reason that the confederate battle flag appears at white nationalist rallies like the one in Charlottesville and the failed marches that were threatened in Tennessee.
If a group that stands for evil chooses your images and your culture and your history as its primary symbolism, shouldn’t you rethink those symbols and determine what makes them so attractive to such unattractive groups?
This series of posts began with an admission. It is only fitting that it should end with a summary of my repentance. The South was wrong to hold slaves. The South was wrong to secede. The Confederate States of America were fundamentally flawed because their existence depended upon the evil of slavery. That institution is flawed for many reasons, not the least of which is its reliance on the excuse of white supremacy, the idiotic notion that white people are superior to black people. Southern culture, insofar as it embraces white supremacy, is fundamentally flawed as a result.
All this is inescapable once the cover-up is removed from the history. Slavery fueled practically every political and military confrontation of 19th Century America. And the noble but hollow chestnut of “States Rights” evaporates, leaving the South without a noble purpose to justify its many ignoble behaviors.
The South committed treason and sedition. Their motivation was slavery. Men of honor rode into battle for the cause of their states and their new nation. That cause was the preservation of slavery. Generations that followed sought to erase the stain upon the honor of those men, sometimes with understandable motivation. Nonetheless, the stain upon their honor was their intent to preserve the institution of slavery. Evil people with no compunction about their racists beliefs hold fast to the images and examples of the failed confederacy. They do so because the institution of slavery was built upon the fallacy of white supremacy.The time for embracing the Lost Cause is over -- if ever there was a time for it in the first place. Click To Tweet
Author: Joey Reed
Joey is married to his best friend and they live in Kentucky. Joey serves Mayfield First United Methodist Church, the Purchase District, the Memphis Annual Conference, and the world is his parish.