Growing up in the North, it can be puzzling to hear of Southern whites who insist on celebrating their racist past.
Whether it comes up in the hoisting of the rebel flag at a state capitol, or opposing the stripping of a Confederate soldier’s name from an elementary school, my simplistic, New York Yankee, public school education teaches that those folks are just clueless rednecks. The South was violent and intolerant compared to the North, we learned. During the Civil War, the bad guys wore gray and wanted to keep blacks enslaved. President “Honest Abe” Lincoln freed all of the slaves and kept America unified. During the civil rights movement, the good whites from up North went down South and helped black folks bear the dogs, water hoses, and end the lynchings. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached about his dream during the March on Washington and segregation finally ended.
But a good college education, deeper history books, and wisdom born of life experiences have taught me that America’s racial heritage is much more complex than that. Besides, living several years now in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area, the epicenter of America’s birth and the “War Between the States,” I understand the different sides of racial tension a lot better. While most blacks saw the war as a tragic but necessary event that led to their people’s freedom from slavery, many whites in Southern states saw it as an assault by the north on their heritage and sovereign rights. Both are true.
This year, as the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War nears (April 12, 1861, is recognized as the date of the war’s first shot), yet another firebomb from the past is flaming racial tensions in the Deep South. The Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans has proposed a specialty license plate to honor Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. This “war hero” also led the 1864 Fort Pillow Massacre, where several disarmed black Union soldiers were killed while surrendering. Forrest was also a founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Confederate veterans say Forrest and other soldiers were brave men who “put it all on the line” for a cause they strongly believed in. They were protecting their families, land, and livelihood. As for his Klan ties, Forrest renounced his membership later in life, in the same way that Supreme Court Judge Hugo Black and Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia had.
According to published reports, the state’s NAACP President Derrick Johnson said the license plate idea is offensive, mainly to black Mississippians who comprise 40 percent of the state. The Klan is “a domestic terrorist organization,” he said adding that the NAACP planned to insist Gov. Haley Barbour denounce the license plate.
Meanwhile, Barbour, who has GOP presidential nomination aspirations, has said he’s sure the proposal won’t pass in the state legislature and that if it does he won’t sign it; however, he refuses to denounce the license plate proposal outright. For Barbour, 63, it has been another misstep on race. Last year he claimed to have gone to integrated schools and that during the civil rights movement he just didn’t “remember it being that bad.” After Gov. Bob McDonald of Virginia, apologized for failing to mention slavery when he proclaimed April as “Confederate History Month,” Barbour said the controversy “doesn’t amount to diddly.”
Barbour is obviously pandering to the far right-white vote, but both he and the NAACP’s Johnson represent a deeper problem. When leadership is unwilling to have an honest open dialogue on race and retrench instead, it’s more likely the rest of us will follow to our predictable, polarizing positions behind the color lines.
In 1998, President Clinton, a Southerner, vowed to lead the country in an “unprecedented.” It fizzled out, but at least he tried.
Now in 2011, with ironically, the first black president in office, we are perhaps even more polarized. After hearing Obama’s profound speech on race during the 2008 campaign, it seemed he might be the one to lead us to a more substantive conversation. But President Obama, a Northerner by way of Hawaii, and his administration are spooked by race. They avoid the discussion by any means necessary.
It’s sad, but maybe it’s best that the leadership on race come from the state, local, and personal level.
Gov. Barbour and Johnson of the NAACP could better serve Mississippians by flipping the predictable race conversation. Lead an open and honest discussion about race, instead. Use the opportunity of Confederate History Month to build a sense of respect and understanding of Mississippi’s black and white histories that are both true and inseparable. It could lead to healing and even racial reconciliation.
It could become a model for how we together acknowledge the dark and bright sides of America’s history.