It’s Not the Old South that Died this Week. It Was the New South.News at Home
tags: racism, Dylann Roof
Glenda Gilmore is the Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History at Yale University. Her most recent book, written with Tom Sugrue, is These United States: A Nation in the Making, 1890 to the Present, forthcoming this fall from W. W. Norton & Company.
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“How much grief and sin? Till the heart caves in.” – “The Kill Zone,” T Bone Burnett, Roy Orbison, Bob Neuwirth
The heart of the South caved in this week, overwhelmed by grief, sin, and the burden of southern history. Across the region, elected officials scrambled to remove the Confederate flag from license plates, government buildings, and state flags. This startling turnaround reflects their national and international political ambitions and proves that that they always understood the flag’s power. The Stars and Bars symbolizes not the Civil War, nor southern heritage, but a malleable white supremacy that politicians used to solidify generations of white voters across class lines. Their willingness to discard it demonstrates the fact that they no longer need it to control working-class white southern voters, who now have few choices left. Leaving behind the tainted symbol, leaders of the Newest South hope to make their values more palatable for national consumption and export them to a global stage in 2016.
The Confederate flag did heavy lifting in southern politics during two historical watersheds: the 1890s campaigns to disenfranchise black voters and the 1950s massive resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. Mississippi adopted the Confederate battle flag as its state flag in 1894, after disenfranchising black citizens by state constitutional amendment. Voting restrictions and the flag were tools in an economic battle. Poor white southerners often voted according to their own economic interests, sometimes with black voters, opposing elite white Democrats. White elites, including South Carolina’s Red Shirts, convinced poor white men that breaking racial ranks at the polls endangered their wives and daughters by electing black officials whose success inspired black rapists. In the 1950s, white massive resistance to the Civil Rights Movement spread myths of black rapists and Confederate flags on a new generation of white voters. Georgia incorporated the Stars and Bars into its state flag in 1956, and South Carolina began flying the Confederate flag over its Capitol in 1962.
The New Right’s national rise in the 1970s required a shaky coalition of anti-New Deal small government ideologues, libertarian economists, big business, militarists, religious fundamentalists, and racists. The South was key: it furnished the last three. South Carolinian Lee Atwater, strategist to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, put it this way: “You start out in 1954 by saying ‘Nigger, Nigger, Nigger,” and “by 1968. . . you’re talking about cutting taxes.” Southern white supremacists came to see the connections between states rights and limited federal domestic power. The Confederate flag served to link racism, opposition to affordable health care, and the Iraq War.
But for a few, like Dylann Roof, the flag authorized the hate that came with the heritage. He reportedly told his victims, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” The absurdity of telling six middle-aged and elderly church ladies that “you rape our women” escaped him because he was targeting an entire race. “Our country” excluded black people named Middleton, Pinckney, and Singleton--South Carolina names older than the country itself.
By saying “You’ve got to go” and declaring on the Internet a race war incorporating the Confederate flag, Roof inadvertently endangered southern white politicians’ aspirations for international leadership. The UN Genocide Convention prohibits “direct and public incitement to commit genocide,” which it partially defines as “intent to destroy” a racial group. Others thought internationally as well. South Carolina League of the South chairman Pat Hines called the move to tear down the flag “a cultural genocide on southern men and women.” Hines spoke approvingly of the link between his organization and international terrorism when he said of the Beslan school massacre of 385 Russians by Islamic terrorists, “We Southrons will adopt exactly the same methods if the Untied [sic] States does not withdrawn [sic] from our lands. It is harsh, but it will be done.” The name of the League of the South’s elite storm troops is the Red Shirts.
Last week citizens quickly deployed the terms “terrorist” and “terror attack” instead of “mentally ill loner” and “hate crime” to describe events in Charleston. In post 9/11 America, the Confederate flag suddenly presents great danger to aspiring southern politicians. Dylann Roof joined Jihadists around the world when he self-radicalized over the Internet. The embodiment of a racial worldview, Roof represents a problem for southern white leaders in a so-called post-racial world.
Slow to realize that terrorism is terrorism, two days after the June 17 attack S. C. Senator Lindsey Graham argued that Roof had sullied the noble heritage of the Confederate flag: “We’re not going to give this guy an excuse about … a symbol out anywhere. It’s him . . . not the flag.” But 72 hours later, he stood beside Governor Nikki Haley to announce that it would be removed from the statehouse, suddenly tossing out the heritage and blaming the hate. He admitted that for some, “it’s a racist symbol and it’s been used by people in a racist way.”
The banner on Lindsey Graham’s presidential campaign website proclaims, “Ready to be Commander-in-Chief On Day One.” We are urged to vote for Graham because “faced with threats from around the world, America needs a leader ready to take command.” Graham has three goals: “securing our nation,” securing our future,” and “securing our values.”i The Confederate flag’s role in Dylann Roof’s terrorist act on Graham’s home turf calls into question his ability to secure either the nation or “our values.”
In fact, Roof had no future for Graham to secure, in part because of the economic austerity southern Republicans embrace. Roof, a 10th grade dropout in a state in which one in four white students fail to complete high school, faced a life of dead end, insecure jobs without the social safety net that might have helped him with his drug problem. All that was left to him was the Confederate flag, which represented—until this week—the values he shared with white southern elected officials.
More than a century of manipulation of the Confederate flag and gutless leadership on race failed Dylann Roof, Clementa Pinckney, and the nation. Eager to take charge of the campaign against international terrorism, promote U. S. militarism, and globalize their economic austerity, white southern Republicans have suddenly realized that the flag is an outmoded tool. This Newest New South can propagate “our values” without it.
Tearing down the Confederate flag is balm for the southern heart. But it won’t change southern politics in 2016.