CONFEDERATE HISTORY IS SUPREMACY HISTORY
BY JULIANNE MALVEAUX
Last week, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell proclaimed April Confederate History Month in his state. In fact he proclaimed the date on April 7, which is the same day in 1865 that Confederate general Robert E. Lee began to negotiate the terms of surrender with United States General Ulysses S. Grant. In some states, this day is considered Confederate Memorial Day, and Virginia is not alone is celebrating “Confederate History Month”. Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana have celebrated this month for quite some time. In the last decade or so Texas (since 1999), Florida (since 2007), and Georgia (since 2009) have also instituted celebrations of Confederate History Month. Virginia celebrated from 1994-2002 before the commemoration was revoked.
Southerners say there is no racism in their celebration of the confederacy. They claim they just want to celebrate their ancestors who valiantly fought for that which they believed in. What exactly did these folks believe in, though? In his famous Cornerstone speech, delivered in Savannah Georgia on March 21, 1861, Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens stated “Our . . .foundation are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth is that the negro (this is how Negro was spelled historically) is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.”
Anyone who believes in freedom, justice, and equality and reads these words has to cringe, not only at the sentiment, but also at the notion that this sentiment has been resurrected, nearly 150 years later, by contemporary governor of a state that is at least 12 percent African American. To celebrate the so-called confederacy is to celebrate the words that Stephens despicably uttered, and that ought to be an anathema to any thinking American.
Governor McDonnell seems to think that he cleaned up his contemptible proclamation by adding language that speaks to the abomination of slavery. He is talking out of two sides of his mouth. How can you describe slavery as “evil, vicious and inhumane” without acknowledging, as Stephens said, that slavery is the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy that he wants to celebrate?
This matter has been so digested in the public space that it seems almost redundant to address it again. At the same time, it seems that not enough can be written or said about our historical myopia and its consequences. For all of our so-called post-racialism, race really does still matter, and this pro-Confederacy nonsense shows exactly how much. For some southerners, the civil war is still really not over, and there are those who truly believe that “subordination to the superior race” is the “natural and normal condition” of Black Americans. Imagine the chagrin these folks feel when they realize that despite their deeply held beliefs, the elected leader of our nation is a man of African descent. As Black Americans close social, economic, and political gaps, the Tea Party posse and the Confederacy celebrants seem to clamor for more and more attention.
I realize that I write this with some risk. The Tea Party folks are so extreme that they run around threatening people, like Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen (D) who raised questions about their motives. Yet history is written by those who hold the pen, and we are all remiss if we do not remind those who are thinking about our nation’s history that the Confederacy was a rebellion against the United States of America. Why should this rebellion be commemorated and celebrated?
History belongs to those who hold the pen, and it seems to me that many penholders have a profound ambivalence about the Civil War and its aftermath. To be sure, cousins fought cousins, friends fought friends, and West Point classmates fought each other. To clean it up, after the fact, the conflict is said to be about states’ rights, an enduring conflict that continues to plague our nation, instead of slavery, which Stephens declared (and no one disagreed on record) as the cornerstone of the confederacy. If the Confederacy had ever been written out of history as an aberrant loser we might not still be struggling whether domestic terrorists should be celebrated. Instead, our nation’s ambivalence about race and equal rights has empowered governors and others to celebrate supremacy.
Instead of a celebration of Confederacy, we really need a repudiation of its principles by all of those rogue states that were once Confederate. Instead, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbor calls the celebration of Confederacy “no big deal”. Too bad Mississippi voters – 38 percent Black American -- can’t make this man accountable for his supremacist views.
Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women.