Students and alumni of that venerable Southern institution Ole Miss are currently reeling at the news that the university has decided to replace its controversial mascot, Colonel Reb, a white-bearded Confederate Army officer, with an as-yet-undetermined new one — a horse, perhaps. To many, abandoning the controversial colonel, who hasn't been the school's official mascot since 2003, makes sense. Even if just some among the Ole Miss student body — 14 percent of which is black — are offended by Reb, then he cannot represent the school as a whole.
Nevertheless, a group of stalwarts is refusing to back down. One student group, the Colonel Reb Foundation, has already gathered thousands of signatures to protest Reb's expulsion. And when The New York Times interviewed fans at a recent Ole Miss football game, the resistance to a new mascot was obvious: " 'Over. My. Dead. Body,' said Mack Allen, 36, an alumnus and technology analyst from Memphis, who wore a T-shirt to a recent football game that read, 'Colonel Reb — Loved by Many, Hated by Few.' "
Like the movement to keep the Confederate flag on government buildings in South Carolina, the Colonel Reb fight is yet another public instance of a group of proud Southerners standing together to fight for their right to show nostalgia for the Old South. And just as I did about the movement to keep the Confederate flag alive, I can't help asking myself once again, "What's there to be nostalgic for?"
In Chapter 9 of Harriet Ann Jacobs' firsthand account of bondage in North Carolina, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs describes a punishment inflicted upon a male slave who had been caught fleeing a neighboring plantation:
Some weeks after his escape, he was captured, tied, and carried back to his master's plantation. This man considered punishment in his jail, on bread and water, after receiving hundreds of lashes, too mild for the poor slave's offence. Therefore he decided, after the overseer should have whipped him to his satisfaction, to have him placed between the screws of the cotton gin, to stay as long as he had been in the woods. This wretched creature was cut with the whip from his head to his foot, then washed with strong brine, to prevent the flesh from mortifying, and make it heal sooner than it otherwise would. He was then put into the cotton gin, which was screwed down, only allowing him room to turn on his side when he could not lie on his back. Every morning a slave was sent with a piece of bread and bowl of water, which were placed within reach of the poor fellow. The slave was charged, under penalty of severe punishment, not to speak to him … The master who did these things was highly educated, and styled a perfect gentleman. He also boasted the name and standing of a Christian, though Satan never had a truer follower.
I like to think of this story, the tale of a good Southern chap who dabbled in torture, whenever I read something about people paying reverence to the South of old. In my estimation, it very tidily summarizes the type of man Ole Miss' Colonel Reb might very well have been, if he were a real person: a wealthy, august gentleman, who incidentally fought under a terrorist banner for the right to own blacks, but also considered African Americans to be so subhuman that he could slaughter them at will, and by whatever gruesome means he fancied.
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.