The unrepentant South

The Irish Times
Saturday, July 16, 2011

Charleston, South Carolina

150 years after the American Civil War began and half a century after the civil-rights movement, old arguments still simmer between blacks and whites. A new series explores race, identity and history in today’s American South

THE AMERICAN Civil War started here, 150 years ago, when South Carolina’s militias opened fire on the Yankees, in Fort Sumter, on an island in the middle of Charleston Harbor. The cataclysmic war that followed killed 620,000 Americans, more than any other conflict in the nation’s history.

Over the next four years, a quarter of the South’s men would perish. Slavery would be abolished. And Abraham Lincoln would achieve his goal of forcibly reuniting the States.

But time has not healed all wounds. A century and a half later, the descendants of the protagonists still cannot agree who started the conflict and why.

For the North, South Carolina precipitated the war by withdrawing from the United States, because it wanted to preserve the institution of slavery. Many Southern whites claim the war was not about slavery but was started by Abraham Lincoln to safeguard income from the South’s cotton and tobacco exports for building northern infrastructure.

Today, horse-drawn carriages rattle through cobble-stone streets, past fine Georgian buildings nestled among magnolia and crepe myrtle trees. Charleston remains a monument to the wealth and charmed life of slave-owning planters and merchants in the antebellum South. For the tourists who flock here, it’s like turning to the opening pages of Gone with the Wind.

On that day, in 1861, from the columned verandas of their seafront mansions, the ladies and gents of Charleston cheered the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

Their heirs gathered on a recent morning, unbowed and unrepentant, to march on Carolina Day. Old codgers sported uniforms of the War of American Independence, or seersucker suits and Panama hats. Police dressed in kilts played bagpipes. The Daughters of the American Revolution wore period dress. In this jewel of the Old South, where roughly a third of the population is now black, there was not one African-American to be seen.

Charleston is steeped in its own history. The centuries blur in a loop of wealth, pride and victory, defeat and grievance.

Carolina Day commemorates a 1776 battle against the British during the American Revolution, but today it’s as if the 85 years between the Revolution and the Civil War have melted away.

“In the first War of Independence, we fought for the right to govern ourselves,” says Michael Givens, commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “In the 1860s, we fought for the right to govern ourselves again. We lost that fight.”

For Givens and his cohort, the 1861-65 conflict was “the war of northern aggression”; slavery was “a legal labour system”. When Abraham Lincoln dispatched 75,000 Union soldiers to South Carolina, in April 1861, says Givens, he was like Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait. “The Declaration of Independence was built on the rights of the governed. We said we didn’t want to be part of the club any more, and Lincoln said, ‘Then we’ll kill you.’ ”

The neo-Confederates who Givens represents do not deny slavery, they just ignore it, preferring to emphasise the racism and hypocrisy of the North. But the legacy of slavery and the century of segregation that followed its abolition haunt this beautiful port city, much as the stink of horse urine permeates its otherwise pristine streets.

The Palmetto Guard, a state militia founded in the 1850s, participated in the 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter. Today they carry the Confederate Stars and Bars in the Carolina Day parade. “What that flag means is ‘no’,” Givens says. “No to the government telling you what to do.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, founded in 1896, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NACCP), established in 1909, are locked in a feud over the American Civil War, and nothing inflames their conflict more than the neo-Confederates’ determination to fly their flag.

Givens dreams of seeing it unfurled over Charleston Harbor again. “People say: ‘That flag reminds me of slavery.’ Well, it doesn’t remind me of slavery. Tens of thousands of South Carolinans died protecting themselves. Why can’t I remember those people without being maligned for it?” To mark the 150th anniversary of the civil war, the Sons of Confederate Veterans have sold 15,000 car licence plates bearing the Stars and Bars in nine southern states.

The NAACP has lost repeated lawsuits against this marketing of the Confederate flag. Mississippi’s plan to sell licence plates commemorating Nathan Bedford Forrest – “A brilliant general who terrified the Yankees,” says Givens – has created further controversy. Media reports say Forrest massacred black Union soldiers and was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Givens disputes this.

Donald Livingston is a professor of philosophy at Emory University, in Georgia, and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who marched with the Palmetto Guard in the Carolina Day parade. He has just written an essay entitled Why the War Was Not about Slavery.

Livingston believes the US would have been better off as an EU-style federation of states rather than the centralised nation Lincoln forged on the battlefields of the republic. He quotes the Confederate commander Robert E Lee, predicting that a federal state would become “tyrannical at home and aggressive abroad”.

When the US marked the centennial, in 1961, it papered over differences and recognised the sacrifice of both sides. In the South, the war was referred to as “the late unpleasantness”. Fifty years later, unity in the memory of mutually inflicted suffering has all but vanished, as old arguments about states’ rights and the power of the central government resurface.

Givens is furious that the federal government has shied away from commemorating the war. More Americans – 7,200 – were killed in the first half-hour of the Battle of Cold Harbour than in a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he writes.

“Men were seen on the frontline, pinning their addresses on to the back of their jackets so they’d know where to send their bodies. People in Washington, DC, should be ashamed of sweeping it under the carpet as if it never happened.”

“NOBODY WANTS to deal with this issue, because it’s a loser, a political hot potato,” says Robert Rosen, the president of the Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter Trust in Charleston, whose Jewish ancestors emigrated from eastern Europe. An attorney and the author of three books about the civil war, Rosen takes a neutral approach to the conflict. For him, the dispute between the black NAACP and the neo-Confederates, with its undertow of racial antagonism, is so last century.

The NAACP “just want to make trouble. They have nothing constructive to offer. They just want to protest,” says Rosen. The Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Secession Ball last December, celebrating South Carolina’s departure from the Union, was “very politically incorrect” and “counter-productive”.

The trust that Rosen heads held a concert at the Battery, from whence Fort Sumter was bombarded, in April. “We had black re-enactors and a black choir. It was something that everybody felt comfortable with,” he says. “We told the story from both sides. We said: ‘This happened. We are commemorating, but we are not celebrating.’ ”

Rosen grew up riding in the front, white section of buses and attending segregated schools. “In my lifetime, the South has changed completely,” he says.

The latest census shows that black people are reversing the great migration, returning to the South a century after they fled discriminatory 19th-century laws that separated blacks from whites and prevented blacks voting.

South Carolina has had a black chief justice of the state supreme court, several black federal judges and a black mayor in the state capital, Columbia. Half of the Charleston city council are black. The only black Republican in Congress is from South Carolina. Even the president of the United States is black.

“A young black child today who wants to succeed and has two parents who want to help can achieve anything,” says Rosen. Nonetheless, he says, “Black people have a lot of fears. I don’t understand their anxiety, but it’s there.”

On a hot summer evening, I sit with two ageing black men on the pavement outside the Charleston market. A lone white policeman stared at us from his squad car. “He’ll probably ask if you bought any drugs from me,” Alfred Fraser, a 59-year-old homeless basket-seller, says bitterly.

“There’s some good white people in this world. I love them because they feel the pain of us,” Fraser says. His story was that of millions of African-Americans. He dropped out of school to help his mother raise younger siblings, had difficulty finding employment. There was a broken marriage, followed by drug addiction, the deaths of two of his five children, one a casualty of a gang fight.

When I ask about the 1960s civil-rights movement, Fraser and the basket-weaver he calls his adoptive father begin singing, “Oh when the saints go marching in . . .” They shake their heads in amazement at the mention of Barack Obama’s election: “We thought that would never happen.”

Those who celebrate the Confederacy “are people who don’t want to forget”, says Fraser. “They want to change things back, but the Lord won’t let them. I don’t want to go back and slave. I hope we don’t never get back to that point.”

Fraser is one of the anxious blacks Rosen mentions. “It could happen by keeping us from getting jobs and having enough to eat and a place to sleep and putting us in jail,” he says.

“Go down in the ghetto and see what we got to do to survive: sell drugs. The drugs bought by white people: we can’t afford a shipload of drugs. We get blamed for it. We get time for it. That’s another form of slaving us.”

© 2011

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