Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Post and co-author with John Stauffer of “The State of Jones,” about Unionists in Mississippi during the Civil War. They are writing a biography of Charles Sumner.
This blighted boy with red hate in his eyes but otherwise colorless curdled milk skin — this boy is a failure. It takes more than a weak stick like him to start a race war.
Personally, I pray that the lives of nine Charleston, S.C., martyrs serve this purpose: Instead of hammering and whispering on racism, we finally reach a tone of agreement based in simple self-truth. Surely we all can shake on the idea that the murder of preachers, teachers and librarians in the name of color demands that we examine how such an old, infectious poison got into the veins of a newborn American boy. And that requires admitting that we have been teaching fiction instead of American history. We have romanticized the roots of hate with crinoline and celluloid.
If you went to Germany and saw a war memorial with a Nazi flag flying over it, what would you think of those people? You might think they were unrepentant. You might think they were in a lingering state of denial about their national atrocities. The Confederate battle flag is an American swastika, the relic of traitors and totalitarians, symbol of a brutal regime, not a republic. The Confederacy was treason in defense of a still deeper crime against humanity: slavery. If weaklings find racial hatred to be a romantic expression of American strength and purity, make no mistake that it begins by unwinding a red thread from that flag.
This lack of political will and failure of self-recognition has repeated itself, on a scale large and small, generation by generation for 150 years, a self-lying sentimental tide. “It seems inconceivable,” Stanley Turkel wrote in “Heroes of the American Reconstruction,” “that the losers of the bloodiest war in history were allowed to wrap their traitorous acts in the description of their so-called noble cause.” Yet in 1957, John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for “Profiles in Courage,” in which he distorted and maligned the character of Union Medal of Honor winner Adelbert Ames, chased from the Mississippi governor’s office during Reconstruction by White Line terrorists, while instead lauding L.Q.C. Lamar as the more heroic figure. Lamar drafted Mississippi’s ordinance of secession and raised the 19th Mississippi Infantry Regiment.
Maybe it wouldn’t have done any good for Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof, who we’re told repeated the ninth grade, but he and his classmates should have been required to read “The Bloody Shirt” by Stephen Budiansky, which describes in vivid detail how between 1867 and 1877 the defeated South was permitted to overthrow new state governments representing black citizens, killing more than 3,000 of them with terrorism. Roof should have been required to read “Redemption” by Nicholas Lemann, who documents how President Ulysses S. Grant effectively gave back everything he had won in the war when he lacked the will to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments with troops, instead abandoning Ames to the White Line terrorists.
All wars are romanticized by those who have never felt bullets fly through their coats. But there is something deeply pernicious in the continued attempts to soft-focus the causes of the Confederacy, its aftermath and its lingering effects. South Carolina’s part of the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, also signed by Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia and Texas, stated that secession was the direct result of “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery.” The Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander Stephens, said, “Our new government is founded . . . its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery . . . is his natural and normal condition.”
This “truth” is what Roof allegedly killed for.
We will have truthfully reckoned with our racial history when high school and college students quit going to Heritage Balls wearing butternut military tunics and sashes and understand that Jeff Davis and Bobby Lee should have spent the rest of their natural lives in work camps, breaking rocks with shovels, instead of on their verandas — and the fact that they didn’t was a profound miscarriage. And when they understand that the South was in fact deeply divided along class as well as racial lines. Enforced conscription and edicts such as the Twenty Negro Law allowed the wealthiest slaveowners to sit out the fight. Something else Roof should have been required to read is Mark A. Weitz’s book “More Damning than Slaughter,” which shows that dissension from within and the desertion of well over 103,000 disillusioned Confederate soldiers defeated the South as much as any battles.
In 1872, another much-maligned patriot, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, introduced a resolution that would have forbidden placing the names of Civil War battles on regimental colors of the U.S. Army. Sumner felt that conflicts in which Americans killed Americans should not be romanticized or celebrated. He was shouted down and censured.
Maybe Dylann Roof’s alleged acts have killed the impulse to romanticize atrocity anymore. Maybe instead of provoking a race war, he has provoked the wish to clean out this brutal wound once and for all with the astringent of truth. We are all unutterably weary of bloody internal estrangements. Can we not agree to run up the same flag? And to lower those crossed and starred banners, the bloody shirts with their inverse reds and blues? Personally, I would like to burn them and bury the ashes in an unmarked grave, keeping just a few for the museums.
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