The Neo-Confederate Sin
As he accepted Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, Union General Ulysses S. Grant was neither jubilant nor boastful. "I felt sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause," Grant later recalled, "though their cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought." President Grant displayed that same spirit of compassion and national healing in 1869, when several Congressmen several Congressmen sought to add to Capitol rotunda a huge mural memorializing Lee's capitulation to Grant at Appomattox. Grant would have none of it:
"No, gentlemen, it won't do. No power on earth will make me agree to your proposal. I will not humiliate General Lee or our Southern friends in depicting their humiliation and then celebrating the event in the nation's capitol."
We're still waiting for many of our Southern friends to return the favor.
One hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, it's long past time for the dead-enders, hagiographers and opportunists of the Lost Cause to forever renounce the hateful symbols, disgusting slogans and supposed saints of the Confederacy. As the massacre this week by an apparently radicalized Neo-Confederate terrorist at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina should remind everyone, no one who displays that flag can be an American patriot. No state that flies that banner of slavery and fratricide can be considered anything but a national disgrace. And no political party that casually traffics in the racist rhetoric and treasonous tenets of nullification and secession deserves either power or respect.
Nevertheless, some version of the flag of the Confederacy--responsible for more American deaths than Kaiser Wilhelm II, Adolf Hitler, Tojo, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein combined--still flies in South Carolina and Mississippi. And it's not just enthusiasts like George Allen, Rand Paul's "Southern Avenger" and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) who rush to its defense. During the 2012 presidential campaign Newt Gingrich, like George W. Bush, 12 years later, declared, "It's up to the people of South Carolina." In 2008, a group called Americans for the Preservation of American Culture run by a former SCV national commander ran ads attacking Mitt Romney and John McCain over the flag issue. It's no surprise that group favored former Baptist Minister and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee:
"You don't like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag. In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell them what to do with the pole, that's what we'd do."
Of course, the one-time Fox News host and two-time GOP White House hopeful Huckabee has plenty of company when it comes to antebellum nostalgia.
Consider, for example, the example of Virginia Republicans. While Democratic state senator and civil rights leader Henry Marsh was attending President Obama's second inauguration in Washington, Republicans voted for an unprecedented redistricting of their state. But the indignity hardly ended there. As Kevin Drum reported the next day:
But wait! That's not all. The deed was done on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and at the end of the session Republicans adjourned in memory of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, whose birthday is today.
That GOP attempted coup died when soon-to-be ex-Republican Governor and former 2016 White House wannabe Bob McDonnell signaled he would not sign the redistricting bill. But in April 2010, Governor McDonnell did sign a proclamation recognizing Confederate History Month and the South's "four year war...for independence." Within days, however, McDonnell was forced to apologize after it was revealed that his proclamation did not recognize the existence slavery. (The next month, Texas conservatives approved an overhaul of the state's textbooks which would remove the word "slave" from the term "slave trade.")
For then Mississippi Governor and former RNC chairman Haley Barbour, McDonnell's supposed oversight was nothing to get exercised about. As he explained:
"To me it's a sort of feeling that it's just a nit. That it is not significant. It's trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn't matter for diddly."
Of course, the preservation of white supremacy mattered a great deal to the Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor to the dreaded White Citizens' Councils of Jim Crow days. Which is why Barbour, who campaigned for governor wearing a lapel pin of the state's Confederate flag he vowed to maintain, was a fixture at the CCC's events. As the Southern Poverty Law Center documented, "Of the 38 current office-holders who've attended CCC events, 26 are state lawmakers -- most of them, 23, from Lott's home state of Mississippi." And among them, as the ADL noted in 2004, was Haley Barbour:
During the 2003 election, the CCC was at the center of another controversy involving the endorsement of a major politician. In July, Mississippi Republican gubernatorial nominee Haley Barbour, who served as Chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997, attended a CCC-sponsored barbecue. Though the attendance of local Republican and Democratic office-seekers at political events partly sponsored by the CCC usually evokes little controversy, this year the group posted on its Web site a photo of Barbour at the barbecue (l. to r.: Mississippi GOP aide Chip Reynolds, State Senator Bucky Huggins, Ray Martin, Barbour, John Thompson, and CCC Field Director Bill Lord.)
Barbour's fellow Mississippi Republican, Trent Lott, similarly extended a hand to the CCC. The former Senate Majority Leader and later Minority Whip (again, you can't make this stuff up) was a speaker in 1992 at an event of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Among its offerings in seething racial hatred is a "Wanted" poster of Abraham Lincoln. Lott's also offered his rebel yell in the virulently neo-Confederate Southern Partisan, where in 1984 he called the Civil War "the war of aggression." That was years before he lauded the legendary racist and 1948 Dixiecrat presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond:
"I want to say this about my state: when Strom Thurmond ran for President, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
But Strom Thurmond wasn't Lott's only choice as an ideal President. As the National Review recalled after the Thurmond incident in 2002, Lott had long made clear that Jefferson Davis would do quite nicely as well:
Mississippians sent Lott to the House in 1972. Six years later, his efforts restored Jefferson Davis's citizenship. Lott repeatedly lauded the former Confederate president, a man who endorsed not just segregation, but slavery. Lott crowed in May 1998: "Sometimes I feel closer to Jefferson Davis than any other man in America."
Lott told Richard T. Hines in the Fall 1984 Southern Partisan magazine, "I think that a lot of the fundamental principles that Jefferson Davis believed in are very important today to people all across the country, and they apply to the Republican Party." He argued that Americans in Biloxi, Mississippi and Los Angeles should be free to live their lives without undue federal pressure.
As it turns out, Lott's path was also traveled by former Missouri Senator and Bush Attorney General, John Ashcroft. Ashcroft granted a long interview with the Southern Partisan, in which he stated:
"Your magazine helps set the record straight. You've got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee, [Stonewall] Jackson and [Jefferson] Davis. Traditionalists must do more. I've got to do more. We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."
And for many of today's Republicans, the real perverted agenda is the province of Democrats, and includes health care reform, women's reproductive rights and gun-control among its Yankee sins.
Take, for example, former Georgia Congressman and failed 2014 Senate candidate Paul Broun. Broun, who boasted that he was the first member of Congress to brand Barack Obama a "Marxist-Leninist", had a different warning in 2010 about what would become the Affordable Care Act:
"If ObamaCare passes, that free insurance card that's in people's pockets is gonna be as worthless as a Confederate dollar after the War Between The States -- the Great War of Yankee Aggression."
As it turns out, Broun wasn't the first Republican to recall the Lost Cause in announcing his opposition to President Obama's policies. In February 2009, Missouri Republican Bryan Stevenson took exception to President Obama's support for the Freedom of Choice Act, legislation which sought to codify the reproductive rights protections of Roe v. Wade nationwide:
"What we are dealing with today is the greatest power grab by the federal government since the war of northern aggression."
Of course, the next logical step for the neo-Confederates of the GOP was to threaten secession. And in April 2009, Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested to a furious Tea Party rally that the secession option should be on the table:
Perry told reporters following his speech that Texans might get so frustrated with the government they would want to secede from the union.
"There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that."
To be sure, violating the oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States is an odd definition of patriotism. Sadly for Perry and the GOP secessionists, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia crushed their hopes:
"If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede."
But even short of secession, the Party of Lincoln seems determined to unlearn another lesson of the Civil War by championing state nullification of federal laws. Suggesting that South Carolina's effort to nullify federal tariffs starting in 1828 was a blessing, Obamacare foes began claiming state sovereignty trumps the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The new "Tentherism" was embodied by new Minnesota Congressman Tom Emmer. As TPM recounted five years ago:
He has even proposed a state constitutional amendment that would allow federal laws to operate in Minnesota only if they were consented to by super-majorities of the state legislature.
Now, GOP legislatures are turning to nullification in response to the modest package of gun violence reforms proposed by President Obama. Despite near-universal condemnation from legal scholars calling their proposed state statutes "outrageously unenforceable" and "pure political theater," Republicans in Arizona and Texas are advocating for "gun secession bills" nullifying federal laws and making their enforcement within state lines a felony. Encouraged by Governor Phil Bryant, Mississippi Republican state Reps. Gary Chism and Jeff Smith filed (and then mercifully withdrew) a bill to form a "Joint Legislative Committee on the Neutralization of Federal Laws." The Mississippi Balance of Powers Act reads in part:
If the Mississippi State Legislature votes by simple majority to neutralize any federal statute, mandate or executive order on the grounds of its lack of proper constitutionality, then the state and its citizens shall not recognize or be obligated to live under the statute, mandate or executive order.
As it turns out, gun control opponents have another argument. If only African-Americans had been armed, slavery would never have happened. As Gun Appreciation Day chairman Larry Ward explained:
"I think Martin Luther King, Jr. would agree with me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country's founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history."
But slavery wasn't just a chapter in American history. It was, and remains, our original sin. The Democratic Party, once home to the KKK and the white supremacists who called the South home, has had its reckoning with it. In the "greatest trade in American political history," Republicans acquired states' rights, secession and nullification in exchange for Democratic ownership of the general welfare, due process and equal protection in a more perfect Union. Over time, the Party of FDR, JFK and LBJ got New England and the new West, while the solid south went to the Party of Lincoln. Democrats got John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the GOP got Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, David Duke and Steve Scalise. (As the always colorful former Louisiana Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards aptly described Duke, "We're both wizards under the sheets.")
For today's Republican Party and its stranglehold on the South, Neo-Confederate nostalgia is a feature, not a bug. Obamacare, abortion, gun control and the national debt are just new forms of slavery. If the Supreme Court as expected ends state bans on gay marriage, evangelical leaders and GOP presidential candidates including Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have called for civil disobedience. North Carolina Republicans have told Tar Heel State wedding commissioners they need not do their jobs for same-sex couples. Texas GOP leaders, including Governor Ted Abbott and Congressman Louie Gohmert, have warned that the U.S. military's Jade Helm exercises are just a ruse for the feds to take over the Lone Star State.
The transformation of Dixie from a Democratic to a Republican bastion has proceeded largely as Nixon Southern Strategy architect Kevin Phillips ("from now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that") hoped and President Lyndon Johnson feared ("there goes the South for a generation"). In a telling moment two generations later, South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouted "you lie" at the first African-American President during a joint session of Congress. While many Americans responded with shock and scorn, others replied with cash for Wilson's campaign coffers. One gun manufacturer commemorated the event by offering a receiver for the AR-15 rifle featuring Wilson's words "you lie" etched into the anodized metal. That episode recalled another one involving one of Wilson's Palmetto State predecessors back in 1856, when admirers sent canes to South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks after he viciously caned abolitionist Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the Capitol. As one laudatory editorial back in Brooks' home state put it:
"Meetings of approval and sanction will be held, not only in Mr. Brooks' district, but throughout the State at large, and a general and hearty response of approval will re-echo the words, 'Well done,' from Washington to the Rio Grande."
Nine years later, the troops of General William Tecumseh Sherman's Union army had a different response for the Palmetto State. Fresh off the destruction of Georgia, Sherman's forces entered Charleston--the cradle of secession--in February 1865. As one Union soldier vowed:
"Here is where treason began and, by God, here is where it will end."
One hundred and fifty years later, the treason may have been ended. Sadly, the hatreds and symbols have not. And those who hold onto them--whether out of a disgusting and dangerous conviction or from grotesque political opportunism--are committing perhaps the worst sin an American can perpetrate. For them, no repentance can come too soon and no penance can be enough.