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Southern Changes

By Benj DeMott

Dylann Roof almost didn't go through with it--"everyone was so nice to me." The thought of him waiting/wondering in the church before he used the gun he bought at "Shooter's Choice" reminds me of this passage in Intruder in the Dust where Faulkner claimed every white Southern boy could lock into the moment before Pickett's Charge--the disaster at Gettysburg that came to stand for the Confederacy's mad gambles:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kempner and Armstead and Wilcox look grave, yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen year old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago...

That undone past no longer feels so near to the bulk of white Southern males. Their tomorrow won't begin 150 years ago. But it was all now to an outlier like Dylann Roof, who believed he was on the verge of starting a winnable race war. Roof knew he was on his own--"We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet...someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world and I guess that has to be me." Yet there were enough Confederates in the attic, prideful monument men, and "great White minds...out there" (per Roof's own net screed) to allow him to fantasize about waking up Johnny Rebel. Southern Heritage-mongers may continue to insist Roof trashed their ancestors' legacy of moonlight and magnolia, but his shots of horror were in their tradition.

In an act of imagination--and faith--as daring as Faulkner's, President Obama recast Roof as a divine tool of enlightenment in the president's eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. ("God works in a mysterious ways.") You don't have to roll with Obama's theology to realize Roof's dead eyes seem to have opened those of other Southerners who'd been blinded by BS about the Lost Cause. The regretful address delivered at the South Carolina State House last week by State Senator Paul Thurmond, son of a Dixiecrat, is on point. Thurmond rejected his own people's excuses for the Civil War:

Think about it for a second. Our ancestor were fighting for the right to keep human beings as slaves...I am not proud of this heritage. These practices were inhumane and wrong, wrong, wrong.


Thurmond's movement of mind might've moved the late, great Southern historian Lawrence Goodwyn who got more help on this front from his own father than Thurmond did. Goodwyn once explained how his dad's graceful truth attack started his march to freedom.

My father told me something when I was fourteen years old and he caught me reading a book by a famous Southern historian named Douglas Southall Freeman who wrote a four volume biography of Robert E. Lee called R.E. Lee. You can't call yourself a Southern historian if you haven't read that book. It's full of romance and insight and lyricism and error. Then he wrote three volumes, Lee's Lieutenants: A Study In Command. It's about the Army of Northern Virginia. And that's when you discover what an incredible army this was. So my father, a colonel in the army, was watching me read this book. And it's not the first one, it's seven books. I'd been reading about the Army of Northern Virginia all summer long. And he knew a few things, he's Georgian himself. His uncle, Pound, in Forsyth County, Georgia ran a military school; later became Gordon Military Institute, named after John B. Gordon, corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia, et cetera, et cetera.

And my father, he called me over to the table where he sat:
"You've been doing a lot of reading lately, what are you reading?"
"I'm reading about the Army of Northern Virginia."
“Oh, what do you think about that army?”
I said, “It was a hell of an army, I'll tell you that.”
He said, “Oh, tell me about it.”

He had that manner. And so I told him about how Lee divided his forces in the presence of the Union army at Chancellorsville, thus violating one of Napoleon's maxims of war, and descended on extreme flank of the Union Army and rolled it back up onto the United States Ford of the Rappahannock River and so forth and so on. And he saw the enthusiasm and God knows what else that was embedded in that recitation from Douglas Southall Freeman's imagination and he said: “Let me tell you something, boy. Southerners do the things they do because they don't know any better. You understand that?” And the only answer to that question in my father's presence was “Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I understand.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. He knew I had no idea and he wanted to fix me in error, so that when I grew up a little bit and knew more than I knew at the age of fourteen, I might remember this conversation...


There were plenty of memorable conversations about the Southern past that's not past on All In with Chris Hayes last week. Tuesday night Hayes alternated between candor and sufferance in an exchange with a Republican State Senator from South Carolina (not Thurmond) who'd come out in favor of removing the Confederate flag from grounds of the State office building in Charleston. When that politician nodded to those who equate that flag with "heritage" not "hate," Hayes pushed back (once), noting the Confederacy was founded explicitly on white supremacy and black slavery. When the pol slipped the point in his come-back, Hayes let it go--a gesture of forbearance that anticipated his response the next day (in a Facebook Q&A) to Governor Haley's statement about the flag: "I can only speak for myself, but I was happy with what she did, whatever the political calculation behind it was. I disagreed with her characterization of what the flag's essential, original meaning is, but given that she did the right thing I wasn't in a mood to quibble."

Hayes wisely avoided hammering on his own points last week. Instead, he made All In a platform for African Americans rooted in the South who did heavy lifting when it came to the burden of Southern history. Hayes' dialogues with them seemed to grow more intense as the nights passed. I was struck (though no more than Hayes himself) when an Alabama lawyer explained last Wednesday that his state's constitution still has provisions outlawing integrated schools--provisions that have been upheld by (white) voters as recently as 2012. The next night Duke Professor Paul Butler talked straight about why he felt asking African Americans to honor the valor of Confederates was equivalent to proposing Jews bow down to the bravery of Nazis.[1] While this issue was personal for Butler--he wasn't out to preen or cultivate a hyped-up "good" rage; he was being real. (If Butler considers the key role Southern white men played in the struggle to defeat Hitler in World War II, I'm guessing he'd be up to taking in more than just the ironic aspect of their time on the right side of history back in those grave days.)

Hayes never came on as a p.c. prig last week. This born Northern liberal is well aware white supremacy has never been a regional thing in America. That's still news, though, to certain citified types who identify white skin privilege with provincial wastelands and rural yahoos. After the terror in Charleston, for example, I got an email directing me to a piece by a "Humanist" who saw "anti-intellectualism" rather than racism at the base of Dylann Roof's mass shooting. The emailer doubled down on the author's take: "It is time to stop blaming all whites and instead examine all aspects of society and culture, especially those of the south and middle America suburbia which exemplifies the worst of American cultural emptiness and anti-intellectualism. Blacks out in the cultural wasteland should move to NYC." (Since militant atheist and Darwinist Richard Dawkins is another pundit who makes up this emailer's mind, it occurs to me she probably takes the Scopes trial of 1925 as an exemplary instance of the ongoing cultural conflict between America's rural wasteland and more urbane precincts. Though perhaps she's aware it was also a conflict between two versions of white supremacy--per Patricia Williams' recent account in the Washington Spectator:

The “Scopes Monkey Trial,” is mostly remembered as a battle between science and pseudoscience. But it was also a battle between theological and secular justifications for notions of racial superiority. William Jennings Bryan, arguing for the creationist state law, resisted evolutionary theories that purported to teach children that mankind was descended “not even from American monkeys, but old world monkeys"...

While Clarence Darrow is remembered arguing on the more “liberal” side against the Butler Act, the deeper truth is that the secular beliefs of the time were not a lot better than the religious doctrine. The particular theory of evolution Scopes was accused of teaching came from Civic Biology, a textbook written by George William Hunter. Hunter believed, as many do to this day, that there were five distinct human races, representing an ascending order of evolution and civilization: Ethiopian, Malay, American Indian, Mongolian, and Caucasian. He was an enthusiastic defender of segregating each of the five, consistent with the tenets of the then-burgeoning American Eugenics Society and the theories of the infamous eugenicist Charles Davenport.)

Lawrence Goodwyn--whose histories of American populism and Poland's Solidarnosc recovered democratic traditions traduced by metro-intellectuals--would've rolled his eyes at any New Yorker who assumed s'all good Up South. But I'd bet he'd've seen Chris Hayes as a brother above the Mason-Dixon line. I wish Goodwyn had been here to amp up All In's history lessons last week. His testimony about links between the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil War could've helped Hayes bring it all down home.


Near the end of Goodwyn's life he was interviewed about his own Southern changes by an oral historian named Paul Ortiz. Their Q&A included Goodwyn's recollection of his life-changing talk with his father. What follows is another (slightly compacted) swatch from that interview which seems right on time now too. It's about Goodwyn's experiences reporting on an episode in the modern Civil Rights Movement--the campaign against Jim Crow and white power in St. Augustine, Florida. (The full interview is available here along with a PDF copy of Goodwyn’s 1965 article in Harper’s Magazine, “Anarchy in St. Augustine,” which still has snap to its punch.) Ortiz and Goodwyn zero in on a moment when St. Augustine police enabled members of the Ku Klux Klan--operating as the “Ancient City Gun Club”--to attack Civil Rights marchers.

Ortiz:...You describe hearing something that breaks out when people attack the march. Can you talk about that?

Goodwyn:...So on this day it was obvious [the uniformed cops and non-uniformed members of the Ancient City Gun Club] had been doing some planning, neither was surprised by the presence of the other. It was almost a positioning of troops...Many officers, many more Klansmen, all the way around this block that the Movement was channeling...And here they came. They had banners. These were, now, in the summer of 1964, veteran civil rights organizers. They're strong, they have been there before, they have an entirely internalized non-violent philosophy, which they've learned from Dr. King. Now, he is not there that day; this march is led by Abernathy—I believe it was Abernathy, it could've been C.T. Vivian. The article will be clear about that, the written article. [According to Goodwyn’s Harpers piece, the march was actually led by another 60s hero, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.] Here they came, and it was evident that all mayhem, all hell, was gonna break loose...The tension was palpable. And about the time they got in front of me about halfway down that block—maybe a little more than half way—apparently it became evident to the Klansmen that if they didn't move now, these people were getting too far past them and all of a sudden they just rushed the marchers.

The scene disintegrated in mayhem and people began running. There were young men and young women, the Movement was young, but there were some older people, thirty, thirty-five, forty...They were chased by the Klan and I don't remember, nor does my story indicate, if there were officers running or not running after the demonstrators. I didn't notice, I just saw fleeing demonstrators and chasing Klansmen.

Then I heard this eerie yell, a loud yell. I became conscious of it and then after I became conscious of it, it seemed to grow. I don't know whether it was my consciousness of it that was growing or whether it actually grew. But all of a sudden I heard this huge roar...it just struck me that, my god, I think this is the rebel yell...Three seconds before that happened I was watching impending doom about to occur. The Civil Society in St. Augustine, Florida coming down the road; I was anxiety-ridden, worried, intense, attentive, but not thinking about the Civil War. I was watching the most vivid political conflict that I'd ever seen in my entire life. But I was not thinking about the rebel yell. And all of a sudden the scene breaks up, the scene disintegrates, people go in all directions. I hear this sound as I'm running across the square. I had a little reporter’s notebook in my back pocket and I pulled it out and took a few notes..."rebel yell." Question mark.

Ortiz: What did it mean?

Goodwyn: Yeah. And what it meant to me was, I had a new way to think about the American Civil War, that's what it meant. That's why it's a long war. America is just discovering itself. One hundred and fifty years later we're still discovering who we are. We're learning that people who took the election of Obama—was it a Republican stalwart who said it mockingly?: “Well, they'll call it a post-racial society now.” But there're also some innocents—Democrats, I think, that thought maybe we'd made a huge step forward. Well, we did make a step forward, but we made a step sideways and a step backward and a step inward most of all...

I've invoked that reflection of Goodwyn's before, but it's never seemed more penetrative. Last week might turn out to be the deepest stretch of the Obama era. Not that Americans don't have more to learn about the places that scare us under his aegis. Per Jedediah Purdy, though, there are limits to the mindful patriotism Obama first instantiated in his 2004 Convention speech. Purdy--a fervent, though not uncritical, supporter of the president and a fellow constitutional lawyer--points out Obama's mode of civic preaching is founded on a white lie about the country's origins. The progressive Christian Jeremiads of Obama (and others such as Rev. William Barber--the African-American minister who's sparked the Moral Monday movement) presume the template for American democracy has already been established. To perfect-the-unionists, it's all about redemption. But, as Purdy insists:

The settlements that became the United States did not begin as an imperfect democracy, struggling to work itself pure. They began as a project of settler colonialism...The exclusion and oppressions of American history began not as original sin, but as what conservative constitutional theorists call original meaning.

I've got too much Johnny Tremain on the brain to go all the way with Purdy. If it's wrong to love romantic portraits of the visionary New England revolutionary James Otis, I don't want to be right. But Purdy surely deserves a hearing at this conjuncture (if not the last word):

We are fooling ourselves if we believe the key is already hidden in our old principles, if we could just get them right--no matter how potent and attractive that idea is, no matter how much partial good we can manage with it. The problem is not just to perfect a flawed democracy, but to decolonize national life.

I'm confident Purdy would concede the president who will preside over that decolonizing process probably hasn't been born yet. In the meantime (as reported in the Sunday Times)...

A little after 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning on the grounds of the Alabama State Capitol, where in 1861, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy and where, more than a century later, George Wallace was snarling about segregation forever, workers quietly took down the battle flag at the Confederate memorial. Before the morning was over, they would take down three other flags of the Confederacy and even uproot the flagpoles.

While such actions provide no more than (what the President termed) "a modest but meaningful balm"--and not even that to intimates of the A.M.E. Zion Nine who have just started to grieve--perhaps the rest of us can be forgiven for imagining it's morning in America.


1 As Butler talked, I flashed on Reagan's trips to Bitburg and Philadelphia, Mississippi. This passage from Fredric Smoler's account of a trip to the American Military cemetery in Luxembourg--not far from the German graves in Bitburg--came to mind as well:

Helen Patton, the general's granddaughter, now married to a German, announces we mourn equally all who sacrifice themselves for a cause. The tourists are pleased to meet the granddaughter, but some of them seem to think this is to some degree nonsense, that the men who lie twenty yards away are ennobled by the cause for which they died, no matter how mean their motives at the time, while the Germans lying a few miles away are to some degree disgraced by the cause they bled for.

From June, 2015

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