Commentary: Celebrating South Carolina's secession is just wrong

The State (Columbia, S.C.)December 20, 2010 

I just don't get it. And I never will.

What’s so joyous about a state that thrived off the enslavement and degradation of human beings deciding to withdraw from a contract to live under a common union just to continue those mean-spirited, malicious and evil acts? What’s there to dance about? What’s there to celebrate? What, pray tell, is there to get dressed up and prance around about? What’s there to be proud of?

A 150th anniversary “Secession Ball” to be held Monday in Charleston as well as any other celebratory events scheduled over the next five years surrounding South Carolina’s defiant defense of slavery or the ensuing, death-riddled Civil War are classic examples of what state Rep. Leon Howard once referred to as the “confederacy of the mind.” It’s a mindset characterized by a glorification of this state’s ugly past while simultaneously ignoring the vestiges of it that play out in our politics and culture today. Our inability to face the shameful truth of our state’s racist, slaveholder past permeates virtually all that we do today — from the court house to the State House to houses of worship.

When attendees gather at a ball at Charleston’s Gaillard Municipal Auditorium Monday to celebrate, embrace — and even relive — the period of secession, what are they really after? Not only will they dress, eat and dance the part, but the highlight is to be a play reenacting the signing of the Ordinance of Secession.

I know individuals have a right to do what they want as long at they’re not breaking laws, harming others or infringing on others’ rights. They can believe what they want, even if it’s not true. But it’s scary that folks can get this worked up about secession, bask in it, and then return to the real world where they work, shop and live with people whose ancestors were enslaved and treated as chattel during the period they just celebrated. When they remove the costumes, will they shed the mindset as well?

Nothing good can come of celebrating secession.

Should we note it? Yes. It changed the course of history and led to the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans. It eventually led to the emancipation of black slaves. It plunged South Carolina into poverty, which was in a way poetic justice, because the state had become the wealthiest in the union on the backs of slaves.

We should commemorate this past with solemn faces and heavy hearts. It’s a period that we ought to collectively remember, discuss and — to some degree — debate. But even then, we must not bury the truth. Pretending that slavery wasn’t the central reason South Carolina seceded is just plain wrong.

Members of the S.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans, a co-sponsor of the ball, argue that slavery was only one of several issues that caused the Civil War. Don’t take their or my word. Decide for yourself. We published the secession convention’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” along with an editorial, on Thursday; go read it. While there are many things that can be debated, the reason for secession, in the secessionists’ own words, is not only clear but limited to one issue: slavery. They even lamented “the election of a man (Abraham Lincoln) to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”

Mark Simpson, the S.C. division commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said in an article in The State that Monday’s ball is a way to honor the brave men who stood up to an intrusive federal government. He also said the Sons of Confederate Veterans condemns slavery. But celebrate, they will.

“We could look back and say (the Civil War) wasn’t something to celebrate — about 620,000 died in the North and South,” he said. “If you count civilians, you’re up to about a million killed in that war.”

“Do we celebrate that? Heavens no,” he said. “War and death is never something to celebrate. But we do celebrate the courage and the integrity of 170 men who signed their signatures to the Article of Secession — the courage of men to do what they think is right.”

One of the greatest things we are called to do is recognize and embrace the wisdom of those who went before us; in doing so, we save ourselves a lot of heartache. But we’re also called to recognize, reject and even correct the mistakes and wickedness of those who went before us.

South Carolina must reject the grave errors of Dec. 20, 1860, not celebrate.

Typically, I wouldn’t worry about what private groups were doing on their own time and dime. But the folks who assemble in Charleston won’t be just whistling “Dixie” as they dance to it. They’re romanticizing a period in this state’s history that should not be romanticized and, in the process, continuing the fantasy that slavery was not the cornerstone of secession.

Such fabrications aren’t what should set the tone for other events that will follow during the 150th anniversary of the five-year Civil War. To that end, I’m glad to see event organizers, government officials and others condemn not only the secession ball but any attempts to celebrate the Civil War. Others, particularly those who occupy our State House, ought to loudly reject a celebratory tone as well.

This is a time for reflection and mourning. We should mourn the fact that those who led and ran this state were so bent on keeping black people enslaved that they readily sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives. I don’t get the celebration thing. I never will.

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