Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Remember Remember the 14th of April

It's one of those moments in the political cycle where Confederates in the attic are popping up all over the place. This current outcrop is largely thanks to the beloved governor of my current state, Bob McDonnell, who saw fit to give what I'm sure he hoped was some mild political payback to pro-Confederacy groups, in the form of declaring April "Confederate History Month."
WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth's shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present...
Pretty bold claim there, Bob, to argue that history leads to our present. Anyways, too much digital ink has spilled on this already, so I just want to point out that although our country makes a habit of constantly remembering the Civil War, we equally have a bad habit of resolutely forgetting its immediate aftermath, that period listed in our history books as "Reconstruction" and the vigorous retrenchment back into white supremacy that followed thereafter. This is a pity, because as a matter of history "leading to our present," it's not actually the war itself which has the tremendous impact. War is war; it is what is, and its impact on individuals and their survivors rarely lasts more than a generation. It is how society deals with that impact, through memorials, cultural remembrance, legal policies, or whatever else, that provides the impact for future generations.

Take, for example, the ridiculous complaints by right-wing critics that Obama is being disrespectful when he puts his feet up on the presidential desk. Kathryn Lopez of the National Review voiced the complaint succinctly on Twitter:
(h/t Wonkette)

Many of us have chortled over the inanity of this complaint, given that the historical record is full of photographs of just about every single president, George W. Bush included, with their feet up on that same desk. But where does the anxiety about feet upon the presidential desk come from? Simply put, this is fear is a relic of Reconstruction. As the US government attempted to introduce representative democracy to the south after the war, one of the results was a large number of black men--often the majority, after all--holding elected office. One of the tactics by which white supremacists fought back was to claim that these black politicians, being uneducated and naturally uncouth, were disrespecting the office. One of the famous images from D.W. Griffith's racist mythology The Birth of a Nation is precisely the same image that gave Lopez such indigesgtion, lawfully-elected black politicians with their feet on official desks:

So in memorial of Reconstruction, and its legacy of racist anxieties, I want to point out that today, April 14th, is often given by periodizing historians as the end of Reconstruction, and the beginning of the resurgence of white supremacy in the south. On this day in 1873, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the so-called "Slaughterhouse Cases", holding that the Federal government had no right to protect the voting rights of African Americans. And that same day, down in Louisiana, a group of white militia slaughtered over a hundred black citizens in the Colfax Massacre, burning down a courthouse in which a large group had taken refugee, and shooting all those who tried to escape the flames. It's a bit much to claim that this single day sent our country down the path of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan, but it was certainly the beginning.

Happy April 14th.

1 comment:

MMR said...