Posted on April 13, 2011

America’s War Without End

Jon Meacham, Parade, April 10, 2011


In Mississippi, the Sons of Confederate Veterans has provoked controversy by proposing a commemorative license plate honoring Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was also a leading member of the Ku Klux Klan. In Marshall, Ark., a mayor was ostensibly rebuked by his own city council after he flew the Confederate flag to honor Robert E. Lee on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. And at Georgia’s Gainesville State College, a painting showing a Confederate flag with Klansmen and a lynching sparked weeks of debate and was eventually removed from a faculty art show.


Following World War II, with Jim Crow under attack, many Southerners reached back to the 1860s for imagery to lend historical drama and credibility to their resistance. After South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond defected from the Democratic Party in 1948 to form the pro-segregation Dixiecrats, he was greeted by supporters in the South waving Confederate flags. That same year, Ole Miss added the playing of “Dixie,” the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy, to its football pageantry. During the integration decisions of the 1950s, Georgia altered its flag to include the Confederate battle emblem. Ultimately, though, the bigotry and brutality of white authorities could not withstand the forces of justice and equality, and the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.

Today, a new battle for history is being waged, with political conservatives casting the Civil War as a struggle against Big Government, with only tangential connections to slavery. These neo-Confederates contend that one can honor the South’s heritage without condoning its institutionalized racism. But as a historian and as a Southerner, I believe that is a losing cause. Without what our seventh vice president, John C. Calhoun, called the South’s “peculiar domestic institution,” there would have been no Civil War. There can be no revision of this inescapable reality.

Some conservatives in Virginia have said they see the current battles against health-care reform and climate-change laws as “a continuation of the efforts by Jefferson Davis and the other secessionists in the 1860s,” according to the Washington Post. One member of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said that Rebels “were fighting for the same things that people in the ‘Tea Party’ are fighting for now.”

This year, as the 2012 presidential campaign gets under way, two powerful forces will intersect: the commemorations of the Civil War and the opposition to President Obama’s policies. As groups in the South reenact historical moments–the Sons of Confederate Veterans in South Carolina has already held a “Secession Ball”–the rhetoric of resistance to Washington will inevitably resonate. {snip}

At such a charged moment, we must remember our nation’s history fully, not selectively. If we truly want to be faithful stewards of the past, Americans need to recall what the war was about: slavery and the definition of human liberty. {snip}

As we reflect on the war, let us never forget that it was fought to rid us of a monumental prejudice and that we must remain vigilant about confronting inequality in our time. {snip}