This purposefully misleading argument is nothing new. Starting in the 1970s, White politicians in many Southern states, and throughout the country, deployed colorblindness in adapting to a new post-Civil Rights Movement era. Far from facilitating further change, these White leaders consciously sought to constrain it, selectively appropriating the dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for a future post-race society and pretending it was already reality.
Over the ensuing decades, White Southern politicians helped forge a national societal ethos of colorblindness. These legislators had long celebrated the symbols of the Confederacy, a breakaway state bent on creating a slaveholding empire, using Confederate-inspired state holidays, statues and flags to promote white supremacy. Now, they commemorated rebel leaders alongside appropriated Black heroes like King. By intent, their muddled “both sides” narrative obscured the urgent need for change that required acknowledging color and enduring racism.
But that narrative is no longer tenable. Following months of sustained protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the police killing of George Floyd, more Americans have seemingly woken up to the truth that to produce real change, people cannot pretend that race does not exist. Rather, they must recognize the intrinsic reality of Black racial injustice, and how deeply rooted it is in American history. And this also means finally grappling with, and repudiating, the legacy of the Confederacy.
Decades after the Civil War, as he lived out his remaining years, Frederick Douglass recognized the tendency of White Americans to forget — to whitewash their history and move on. Speaking in Rochester, N.Y., in 1882 on Decoration Day, what is now Memorial Day, Douglass sighed that his mostly White audience likely believed that “this cruel war is over, and now we should forget and forgive the past, and turn our attention entirely to the future.”
As Douglass stressed, that yearning was misguided. “I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery,” he asserted. By burying the past, he made clear, his audience was abandoning Blacks to injustice — to the whims of former Confederates, bent on continuing the oppressions of slavery in other forms.
Fueling both this national forgetting and ongoing oppression, Douglass knew, was the Lost Cause — the false narrative, developed by ex-Confederates after the war, that White Southerners had fought for states’ rights, not slavery. Starting in the 1880s, this narrative inspired a resurgence in Confederate symbolism. Southern politicians established state holidays celebrating Confederate heroes, such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Statues commemorating them went up across the South, most prominently on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
The insidious racial intent of such symbolism was not lost on African Americans. The former Confederacy, legislators had demonstrated, remained a land of white supremacy. That these politicians consolidated oppressive Jim Crow regimes at the same time was no coincidence.
When the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s demanded change, White Southerners responded with massive resistance — a concerted campaign against integration, in which Confederate symbolism once again took center place. The Confederate battle flag, barely in use since the Civil War, burst back onto the scene. Some Southern state flags featuring Confederate symbolism also date from this era, created explicitly for the fight against integration.
Yet they were on the losing side of history. To an extent, policymakers acceded to activists’ demands, passing landmark civil rights legislation. Eventually, even White Southern politicians realized that, given the tide against them, their best path forward was to accept change — to a degree. By doing so, they could remain in power in the new era, controlling — and limiting — such change. Thus they embraced the concept of colorblindness.
Consider, for example, Southern journalist James J. Kilpatrick. A former arch-segregationist, Kilpatrick adapted to the times with gusto in the 1970s, espousing colorblindness as a means to oppose policies like affirmative action and school busing without seeming overly racist. Masking the rampant, race-based educational inequality that such programs aimed to address, he accused his opponents of being the ones with the “racist attitude,” since they refused to move past the color issue. Through his deceptive transformation, Kilpatrick became a nationally syndicated columnist and celebrity commentator on television news programs, including CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
Colorblindness grew beyond the South. It became the defining ideology of suburbanites throughout the nation in the 1970s and 1980s, offering them cover for discriminatory policies of spatial and educational segregation. Suburban women nationwide especially led the charge, creating an alphabet soup of acronym-bearing organizations like Michigan’s NAG (National Action Group against Busing) and Boston’s ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights) to preserve and protect whiteness.
In the South, legislators soon began merging colorblind politics and the Lost Cause in a strange, nonsensical whole. Take the Confederate-inspired state holidays, which occurred in January, the month of Lee and Jackson’s birthdays. After Congress established Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday in 1983, many Southern states resisted the measure. Others co-opted it, combining it with their existing holidays. Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi created King-Lee Day, and Virginia Lee-Jackson-King Day. In doing so, the Virginia legislature proclaimed that it was honoring three “defenders of causes.” Its message was clear: It was conflating Lee and Jackson’s fight for white supremacy with King’s fight against it. The past was the past, and racism was over. Everyone could celebrate both sides, forgetting about further change.
All the while, Southern states continued flying racist, Confederate-inspired flags — and, at times, the Confederate battle flag itself — on state grounds alongside the American flag. Again, so too did others. During this same period, Confederate flags became popular nationwide, legitimized by Whites from Florida to Ohio as symbols of conservative protest.
Now, things are beginning to change. Finally recognizing that a “both sides” narrative only perpetuates racial injustice, Americans and state legislators alike are taking action — at least to some extent. This year, Virginia followed the earlier lead of Arkansas in abandoning its state celebration of Lee and Jackson. In recent weeks, Confederate statues on Monument Avenue have been coming down one by one, joining others across the nation. Mississippi voted to change its state flag, the last one which had explicitly featured a Confederate flag, while NASCAR and the Department of Defense have acted to ban the Confederate battle flag itself, defying Trump.
Still, King-Lee Day remains on the calendar in Alabama and Mississippi. The Alabama state flag, moreover, is an indirect yet unmistakable reference to the Confederate flag, created during Jim Crow. And, on an almost daily basis, Trump continues to offer a full-throated defense of Confederates as American heroes, its symbols as sacred American symbols. But reckoning with the ugliness of our racial past is key to rectifying the ways in which racism continues to shape our society today. And only by doing so can we truly move forward.