Déjà Vu All Over Again: Secession Fever

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The triumphant e-mail arrived in my in-box a week or two ago. It announced a re-enactment of the Florida Secession Convention on Jan. 8, 2011, in the old State Capitol building, where the original event took place 150 years before.

"This will be an early event of the Sesquicentennial of the War Between the States as Florida was the third state to leave the Union," wrote the sender.

The Florida Secession Convention event is just one of many such spectacles planned over the next five years as the children of the Lost Cause revive ghosts of the Civil War. In Georgia they will re-enact the state's 1861 Secession Convention. Alabama will hold a mock swearing-in of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. People in Charleston, S.C., have organized a gala ball with period dress.


While the re-enactments will be a chance for folks to sip mint juleps and sing "Dixie," they have sparked a revival of the old debate about whether the most deadly conflict in U.S. history was fought over slavery or states' rights.

But for most historians, the case has long been closed.

"Slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War. Period," Bob Sutton, chief historian for the National Park Service, told the Associated Press.

Although this debate will demand much media attention, it's also a sideshow, a diversion. The latest burst of emotion over the Civil War is not about the past. It's about the present and the future. If you're skeptical, read the e-mail promoting the Florida secession re-enactment event: "There is huge potential for favorable media coverage as many of the same issues embroiling the nation in 1861 are relevant today and covered by many news outlets," the sender wrote.

It is not alarmist to suggest that this is about a resurgent Confederacy — not the treasonous war machine, but a culture that sees itself as being in the ascendancy and is not the least apologetic for sins of the past.


"These battles of memory are not only academic," Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the New York Times. "They are really about present-day attitudes."

This isn't merely about President Obama. Think about what happened after Reconstruction-era black politicians were discredited and removed from office in the 1880s: It took generations and another revolution before black politicians returned to elective office in significant numbers. Destroy this presidency, and no progressive of color will aspire to the nation's highest office for another 100 years.


But this is about more than just protecting black politicians — after all, skin color grants no immunity to incompetence. It is about us as Americans. Who we are and where we're going. Who moves forward and who gets left behind — again.

My fear is that what's happening is a classic example of history repeating itself. During the Civil War, poor white folks acted against their economic self-interest and waged a war that could only have benefited the landed aristocracy. The race card blinded poor Southern whites from seeking solidarity with their natural allies: Southern blacks.


The regions of the country with the strongest opposition to health care reform are areas with the highest uninsured rates: the states of the former Confederacy. Six weeks ago, many people voted for smaller, less activist government during a time that calls for innovative, daring leadership.

"This last election made no sense," Bartley said. "In a time of economic recession, people voted for people who say they are for doing less for you, not more."


The same people who sacrificed the most and lost the most will do so again. A century and a half later, one thing is certain: The Confederacy was un-American yesterday. It's still wrong for America today. No re-enactment party can change that.

Andrew J. Skerritt is an assistant professor of journalism at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla.

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