Commentary: Civil War's 'conspiracy of amnesia'

The Miami HeraldApril 12, 2011 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

"It is not safe . . . to trust $800 million worth of negroes in the hands of a power which says that we do not own the property . . . So we must get out . . . " — The Daily Constitutionalist, Augusta, Ga., Dec. 1, 1860

‘‘[Northerners] have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery  . . . We, therefore, the people of South Carolina . . . have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and other States of North America dissolved.” — from “Declaration of the Causes of Secession’’

“As long as slavery is looked upon by the North with abhorrence . . . there can be no satisfactory political union between the two sections.” — New Orleans Bee, Dec. 14, 1860

“Our new government is founded upon . . . the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” — Alexander Stephens, “vice president’’ of the Confederacy, March 21, 1861

On Tuesday morning, it will be 150 years since the Civil War began.

The bloodiest war in U.S. history commenced with the bombardment of a fort in Charleston Harbor. President Abraham Lincoln was careful to define it as a war to restore 11 rebellious southern states to the Union — and only that.

For those 11 states, it was a war for property rights — property being defined as 4 million human beings. They feared the federal government would not allow the business of trading in human beings to expand to the new territories in the West.

By the time the war ended, four years almost to the day later, Lincoln’s view had changed. He had come to see himself and the war he had prosecuted through 48 bitter months of turmoil and tears, as tools of the Almighty’s judgment upon the nation for having allowed the evil of slavery.

The South would change its view as well. It would begin to spin grand, romantic fables of a “Lost Cause’’ that had been fought for “state’s rights’’ or constitutional principle, or any other reason it could invent, so long as it was not slavery. Jefferson Davis, who before the war had flatly declared “the labor of African slaves’’ the cause of the rebellion, would write after the war that slavery had nothing to do with it.

Thus, the South entered a conspiracy of amnesia that, for many, continues to this day. As in Virginia naming April Confederate History Month last year in a proclamation that did not mention slavery. And recent attempts in Mississippi to honor Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest, who led a massacre of unarmed black people and helped found the Ku Klux Klan. And the ‘‘Secession Ball’’ South Carolina hosted in December to, as one man put it, “honor our ancestors for their bravery and tenacity protecting their homes from invasion.”

So this seems an apt moment to speak in memory’s defense. As Confederate battle flags flap from truck grills and monuments, as tourists gather around pigeon-stained statues of dead rebels baking under the Dixie sun, as Southern apologists seek glory in acts of treason, and as all of the above studiously avoid coming too close to the heart of the matter, to its cause, it is worth remembering that their forebears were not as circumspect.

To the contrary, they said clearly and without shame that they fought for slavery.

If that makes someone uncomfortable, good. It should.

But you do not deal with that discomfort by telling lies of omission about yesterday. You do not deal with it by pretending treason is glory. No, you deal with it by listening to the hard things the past has to say — and learning from them.

This nation took so much from the men and women it kidnapped. It took dignity, it took labor, it took family, it took home, it took names. In the end, the last thing any of us has is the memory of ourselves we bequeath the future, the reminder that we were here.

And to their everlasting dishonor, some of us want to take that, too.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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