When the Civil War was won and the Confederacy surrendered, feelings of resentment ran high in former slave states. The fires may have been slowly banked after the war, but underneath all they still burned white hot and are still easily stirred to conflagration. A war that never really ended now confronts us once again as Civil War 2.0.
In those long ago days, former slaves believed that freedom was real and that they would be permitted to enjoy the full freedoms of the American republic. They wanted to own land and run for public office, go into business, and put the past behind them.
But many Southerners believed that these former slaves were inferior to white folks right down to their genes and that they should not be allowed to become fully accepted citizens of a postwar South. They were still beaten by their former owners who were joined by southerners who could never afford to own slaves, their land was stolen from them, and they were kept under firm control by white authority figures. They were rounded up and killed if they gathered in a group that might take revenge for the ways they were treated under slavery. Fear of retribution was a big motivator for the slaughters, the lynching, the KKK intimidation which I found graphically described in Ron Chernow’s book Grant.
Southern whites put pressure on Grant who became the President after the war. They insisted that no Federal troops would be tolerated to defend black folks against white backlash in Southern communities. Posse Comitatus laws were passed to give local sheriffs control over local matters. Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) showed us that these laws are still cited today, as they were in the Cliven Bundy matter when the Department of the Interior sent armed Federal employees to stop Bundy from grazing his cattle for free on government land. The ‘Feds’ were sent packing by armed militia, even though they were acting on Federal land, because this rule, which says Federal troops cannot operate in a state, is still valid.
(This Posse Comitatus rule has some value, we don’t want Federal troops storming into our states every time there is a confrontation, but giving local law enforcement carte blanche to deal with situations where their biases might affect their reactions was harmful in the case of the aftermath of the Civil War and could be/is harmful again.)
One result of Grant’s decision to pull Federal troops out of the South was to allow a beaten Confederacy to vent all its frustration on their newly freed slaves. You would think all the hate expressed in such disgusting displays of violence, bloodletting, and hate would have led to decades of shame, bowed heads, and white remorse. However, as we all know, that is not what happened.
The Confederacy has been romanticized and any white remorse is “Gone With the Wind” as somehow a whole nation came to mourn the end of the Plantation system in the South (with its now-invisible companion, slavery). The nation somehow felt sorry for the losers, and the South’s private belief that they would “rise again” (as signaled by the ubiquity of statues to Confederate “heroes” throughout the South, and by the equation that said that the Confederate flag equals patriotism, and by the fact the Confederate flag is often allowed to fly alongside the American flag) went basically unchallenged for one hundred and fifty years. But alongside the misplaced sympathy and the desire to give the losers time to lick wounds, alongside this tendency to allow a group that rebelled against the government and lost to continue to take pride in a now defunct way of life, Grant’s decision made it hard for the Federal government to step in against the KKK and other hate groups. Freed slaves died by the thousands.
No actions were really taken to fight the hate until 100 years after the war was over. “Jim Crow” bought a dishonorable peace to the South. And although the North should have been a haven for freed slaves, we know it wasn’t. These days Confederate flags wave from truck beds even in states in the North which opposed slavery and fought the army of the South in the Civil War.
We are constantly reminded by modern Republicans that the Democrats were the party of slave owners before and during the Civil War. There were rabid segregationists in the party who argued that the “races” should be kept separate, and that black folks are inferior to white folks. But the parties switched ideologies after the Civil Rights Act was passed in the mid-sixties. A few segregationists hung on in the party because, perhaps, they thought they could fight integration more successfully from inside the party, but they were reviled and were an embarrassment to the party.
Who knows if the Civil Rights bill would have ever become law if it wasn’t for Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and the four children who lost their lives when the 16thStreet Baptist Church was bombed, if it wasn’t for the fire hoses, and the mirrored sunglasses, and the buses that brought white and black people in from Northern states to show solidarity and to bear witness.
Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Bill we see the old hatreds flare up again, the Confederate flags – adopted by militia folks who are white supremacists, and now Trumpists, still interested in living separate from black and brown Americans. Sometimes it feels like the Civil War never ended and that we are fighting it once again under the direction of Trump, Mitch McConnell, and the Freedom Caucus. All those Southern accents once again reincarnating the Old South, as the anger that has simmered for a century is reflected outwards each and every day from the Senate floor.
And Trump, just a white supremacist, no legacy in the Confederacy, smiles on it all as if the reasons for his behavior don’t matter, as if he is finally one of the “good ole boys” Look at the map. Red states and Blue states clearly parallel the old Union and Confederate divide, with Red States actually multiplying. Losing the war may have ended the very profitable Plantation system (which depended on slavery) but these men, resentment stored up in their hearts, will be damned if we take away their millions, their factories, and their fossil fuels and spend money on ‘deadbeats’.
The Civil War is not over. It is being fought by a Republican Party, bloodlessly, through an organized strategy of suppressing votes, of districts which are drawn so that they will reliably elect Republicans, of obstructing legislation in the Senate, of stuffing the courts, of building pipelines, of making public lands private, of drilling in the Arctic, of refusing to credit climate change even if it threatens their own homes, of unfettering an already empowered Capitalism.
Just think of Mitch McConnell as the new Robert E. Lee, although he hardly can be said to have any nobility or charisma. If the Democrats lose this continuation of the Civil War, this Civil War 2.0, the loss could be as devastating, or even more destructive than winning the war was in 1861. Republicans do not mind disregarding our Constitution and our norms and they have turned religion into a bizarre anti-religion which sounds nothing like the beliefs I learned about in Sunday school. If they win, our future slips away into some segregated, divided Conservative state for who knows how long.