Southern apologists — like Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) in his Wall Street Journal piece “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege” — like to bandy the statistic that fewer than 5 percent of whites below the Mason-Dixon Line owned slaves, the subtext being that the rest of the South’s whites were as hard off as blacks and, in Webb’s words, “dominated by white elites who manipulated racial tensions in order to retain power.” (Apparently, to Webb, being poor is comparable to being whipped nearly to death before being squeezed into a cotton gin and starved for weeks at a time.)
Somehow, it seems that Webb and others like him have never considered what else that statistic could mean: that more than 95 percent of white Southerners were complicit in one of humanity’s greatest crimes, a crime that, if they’d decided to rise up against it, as their Yankee counterparts eventually did, they could easily have ended.
So why didn’t this overwhelming majority of Southerners stage a John Brown-style rebellion en masse, or even a major but bloodless nonviolent protest? That’s because, whether he owned slaves or not, the antebellum white Southerner operated under the belief that blacks were animals at best, demons at worst.
Simply consider the way that whites of all classes banded together in the decades after the Civil War to beat, terrorize, lynch, disenfranchise and, once again, torture the newly freed blacks in their midst; then try to rationalize that 95 percent of whites actually wanted to live in harmony with people of color. This is as ridiculous as saying that because the vast majority of Germans didn’t work in concentration camps, it’s clear that they were friends to the Jews.
Saying that the Civil War was all about slavery is inaccurate and reductionist, to be sure. That said, it was enough about slavery that it is wholly offensive when modern Southerners latch onto outrageous totems like Colonel Reb and the Confederate flag. Say what you will about heritage, but a large part of the Confederacy was hate — an unvarnished, unreasonable hate that was responsible for the death of millions.
If the South would like to draw on more positive aspects of its history to sentimentalize itself, it should look toward its rich cuisine or its cotillion culture. The Ole Miss beaus may not be as fearsome as a retired Confederate colonel who murdered black people for amusement, but is that old colonel a prototype worth celebrating anymore in a truly civilized and advanced society?
We shouldn’t gloss over the fact that some antebellum Northerners owned slaves, or that modern citizens of Boston and New York can be as cruelly racist as any bigot you’ll find in Mississippi or Alabama. But the simple fact is that nowhere else in America will you come across so many people who are openly wistful about things and people that represent our nation’s most embarrassing, most violent and ugliest period of time.
In Wisconsin, for instance, Gov. Jim Doyle recently signed into law a ban on Indian mascots in public schools, and the Los Angeles Unified School District enacted a similar ban back in 1998. Yet in Oxford, Miss., thousands of Ole Miss students and alumni are uniting to pay homage to Colonel Reb and his grey Confederate Army uniform.
Colonel Reb is a stain on the American tapestry, as is the Confederate flag. Good riddance to both, but long live Ole Miss.
Cord Jefferson is The Root‘s Washington correspondent. Follow him on Twitter.