September 23, 2017, 5:43 pm
by Selvam Canagaratna
“Segregation is on its deathbed – the question now is, how costly will the segregationists make the funeral?”
– Martin Luther King, Jr., Address, Villanova University, 1965.
“The blindness of President Trump regarding racial bigotry – and indeed that of many white Americans – is that whatever they say to the contrary, they really don’t appreciate the evils of slavery or the ensuing century of lynchings and segregation.”
That was the opening salvo of veteran investigative journalist and founder of the TruthDig website, Robert Parry’s piece on President Trump’s ‘White Blindness’. “By defending what he called ‘beautiful Confederate statues’, noted Parry, “Trump only showed how little he understood the evils of slavery and the cruerlty of lynchings and segregation”, and adding, pointedly, “but he is by no means alone.”
Much of that ignorance came from the systematic rationalizing and romanticizing of the ante-bellum South while shielding from criticism many of slavery’s historical apologists, including both Confederate ‘heroes’ and earlier icons such as Thomas Jefferson who became a staunch advocate for expanding slavery all the better to increase his financial bottom line.
Parry noted that although he grew up in Massachusetts in the 1950s and 1960s, “our ‘history’ textbooks could easily have passed muster in the Deep South. They treated slavery as an unfortunate feature of America’s past but not really all that bad, an institution in which most slave owners were kindly masters but a few employed cruel overseers who committed some isolated abuses like whippings.”
And, added Parry, if that recollection of his grade-school experience sounded hard to believe, he invited readers to “just watch the 1939 movie classic Gone with the Wind, which presented Tara’s plantation slaves as mostly content with their enslavement and loyal to their masters,” adding, “That was pretty much what Americans were taught for generations and explains why the 1977 TV miniseries Roots was such a shocking event, because it showed the systematic cruelty of slavery from the perspective of the slaves.”
By 1980, the decades-old ‘conventional wisdom’ about the quaint-and-misguided-but-mostly-okay institution of human bondage was shattered not only by TV’s dramatic portrayal of slavery but also by sound historic scholarship, which gained greater attention due to the Civil Rights Movement and growing popular resistance to ‘patriotic’ propaganda.
Still, many white Americans rejected the notion of white guilt for those past crimes and rallied to Ronald Reagan’s crude caricatures about “welfare queens” and people who used food stamps to buy vodka and other luxuries. While Reagan was careful not to say outright that he was referring to blacks, he didn’t have to because his listeners understood the coded messages.
Indeed, the Republican Party had been playing the race card since Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy of 1968. It’s not a coincidence that this racial messaging swung the Democrats’ once-solid South overwhelmingly into the Republican electoral column.
“So, it’s a bit ironic when the US mainstream media cites Republicans who have benefited from these race-baiting dog whistles as responsible leaders when they decry Trump’s slightly more overt appeals to white nationalists and other racists,” wrote Parry. “On the immediate issue of Confederate statues and other honours, the Republicans have long led the way in protecting these tributes to white supremacy under the guise of ‘defending history’ – “a safer position that Trump finally retreated to in the face of increasing criticism of his rhetorical excuse-making and moral equivalence after that violent rally by neo-Nazis, the KKK and white nationalists over the removal of the Confedcerate monument to General Robert E. Lee.”
Trump’s ‘safe’ position came in the form of a tweet: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”
But that, wrote Parry, is the classic defense of neo-Confederate racist thinking. “The pretense is that these monuments and other honours are simply a recognition of history when they were clearly intended to glorify the Confederacy and its rebellion against the United States over the Southern fear that slavery would be abolished and the wealth of plantation owners effectively negated.”
Parry recalled that most of the Confederate monuments were erected in the Twentieth Century, often as symbolic rebukes to progress being made by the descendants of African-American slaves. “These were monuments to white supremacy – and for Trump and other white Americans to pretend otherwise is anti-historical nonsense.”
In the 1920s – at the height of the Jim Crow era as lynchings were used to terrorize black communities energized by the return of African-American soldiers from World War I – the Daughters of the Confederacy succeeded in attaching the name of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to sections of Route 1, including in Arlington County, Virginia, near predominately black neighbourhoods.
And in 1964, as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement gained passage of a landmark civil rights law, the Virginia legislature added Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s name to a section of Route 110 that passed by the Pentagon and near Arlington National Cemetery, which was begun in the Civil War to bury dead Union soldiers, including black troops who joined the Army to fight for their freedom.
On Jefferson Davis’s authority, Confederate soldiers were permitted to summarily execute African-American Union soldiers upon their surrender, a practice that was carried out in several notorious massacres, such as at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, on April 12, 1864; the Battle of Poison Springs, Arkansas, in April 1864; and the Battle of the Crater in Virginia. Scores of black prisoners were executed in Saltville, Virginia, on Oct. 2, 1864.
Added Parry: “The dishonesty of Trump’s ‘history’ argument – and its well-worn use by Confederate apologists – is underscored by the obvious fact that statues and other honours are meant to transform historical figures into icons to be emulated. Governments do not bestow these honours on criminals or traitors just because they are historical figures.
“You don’t see many government statues to Al Capone or Benedict Arnold,” wrote Parry. “And, Americans would be rightly alarmed if Germany began erecting statues to Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen. So, to pretend that these Confederate statues are not meant to glorify the South’s battle to protect the institution (or industry) of slavery is simply a lie.
“Recent historical revelations also reveal Jefferson to have been a much more ruthless slave master than his admirers have wanted to believe. He countenanced the whipping of boys, calculated the financial value of child-bearing females, and apparently helped the ‘breeding’ along by imposing himself sexually on one and likely more of his slave girls.
“Also, left out of many Jefferson biographies is why he established the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It wasn’t simply his devotion to learning; he feared that young Southern aristocrats going north to school would be contaminated by the arguments against slavery and in favour of a strong national government, twin evils that the erudite Jefferson called ‘anti-Missourism,’ and ‘Consolidationism’.
“Despite their faults,” wrote Parry, “to put Washington and Jefferson on the same historical plane as Jefferson Davis and the Confederates makes a mockery of historical distinctions.
“That the United States would honour people responsible for a horrific war designed to perpetuate slavery – leaders who authorized the outright murder of unarmed soldiers just because of the colour of their skin – should shock the conscience of any moral human being although apparently not President Trump.”
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