In a singularly perverted observation of Black History Month, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour stated last week that he had no problems with a new state license plate that honors Nathan Bedford Forrest. That would be the same Nathan Bedford Forrest who was a Confederate general and one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.
The ensuing controversy was nothing short of bizarre, even for these bizarre times. Some Forrest apologists argued that he was only “one” of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan and he shouldn’t be burdened with the entire guilt of paternity involving this consortium of terrorist racists. Others claimed that regardless of his “imperfections” he was an outstanding general, perhaps a military genius, and he deserved honor for his martial accomplishments.
Rather than jump down the rabbit hole with Haley Barbour and the pitiful adherents to this concept of Southern “heritage” and “tradition” I am choosing to stand on the solid ground of history and fact. For too long the flying of Confederate flags, the celebration of the secession of southern states and the glorification of the “Southern way of life” has been the subject of debate. It is time for that debate to end.
The entire way of life in the southern states that seceded from the United States was based on slavery. Unlike the Germans at the end of World War II who claimed that they were unaware of the horror of the concentration camps, every conscious white man, woman and child in the South was absolutely aware of the forced bondage of millions of black men, women and children.
Like their moral bretheren the Nazis, the slave owners, slave masters and slave traders along with their wives, children and political supporters established an awful but efficient system because it was to their advantage. The Nazis chose the Jews, the slave owners chose black people.
Their approaches were similar. The religious and philosophical gymnastics used to justify the enslavement of black people would have sounded familiar to the Nazis as they justified the persecution and murder of Jews.
There was nothing endearing, uplifting or worthy of praise in a system that bought, sold, tortured and oppressed human beings on a daily basis. There is no honor in a “heritage” that accepted the brutalizing of the spirit of the slaves – and the slave masters. The “Southern way of life” embraced and endorsed rape, murder, torture and degradation. There is simply no escaping these facts.
I do not believe that the men and women whose family trees have their roots in the South should engage in eternal penance. I also do not believe that these men and women should blithely engage in the creation of a mythical history that absolves the sins of their mothers and fathers.
This is not only disrespectful of the memory of the men and women who suffered their entire lives as the property of a society as cruel and despicable as any in modern history. It is also dangerous, because by ignoring the facts of history we run the risk of not perceiving its recurrence.
The Confederacy was the American Reich. It was a relatively successful social and economic system that was built on the belief that the supposed inferiority of some people could be used for the benefit of the majority. There were psychic as well as economic values to this system – feeling superior to someone, anyone, anesthetizes the pain of personal insecurity and failure.
Like the Third Reich, the American Reich was worth fighting for, long after defeat was guaranteed. The “way of life” – legal and legitimized bias, prejudice and cruelty was worth dying for, and hundreds of thousands did just that.
Like the Third Reich, adherents of the American Reich continued to guard the flame of their wretched dream. The Nazis took to hiding in Argentina and Paraguay awaiting their return to glory. The Confederates went lurking in the dark woods of the South, wearing sheets, engaging in silly rituals and murdering black people in the middle of the night.
The dreams of the Third Reich have dimmed. There is no United States governor who would give cover to the Nazis. There are no statewide celebrations of the Third Reich (in the United States or Germany) replete with goose steps and brown shirts.
However, the dreams of the American Reich seem to be alive and well in too many places.