Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

August 19th, 2017


President Donald Trump will say anything. But as he so casually changes his positions, the significance of his words is often difficult to measure. However, when this past week he reversed himself for the second time and again blamed “both sides” for the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, his message was clear. By choosing to lay equal blame for the violence on those who were resisting the hate mongers - he was effectively giving a pass to the white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK, for which leaders of these groups immediately thanked him.


 As I watched this drama unfold on television, I was taken by the reaction of seasoned journalists like Chuck Todd of NBC and veteran White House aide in four administrations David Gergen on CNN. Having covered Trump extensively, and having learned to expect the unexpected, they still seemed genuinely shocked by this latest pivot. One is left with the feeling that this could turn out to be the most fateful decision Trump has made as president.

Trump didn’t invent America’s racial tensions although he has shamelessly exploited them – most notably spending years challenging Barack Obama’s legitimacy by falsely claiming he was not born in America. Still, the most troublesome aspect of the violence in Charlottesville is that it symbolizes yet another resurgence of white supremacists and hate groups in this country – groups which now publicly take credit for Trump’s election and who have been given his tacit blessing. 

The reason for the “Unite the Right” gathering of extremists in Charlottesville, was to exploit the town’s decision to remove a prominent statue of General Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate army during the Civil War. For some white Southerners Lee is still much beloved. For many African Americans and liberal whites, Lee led the bloody four year insurrection against the central government of the United States and instead of being put on a pedestal, deserved to be tried for treason. 

Sad to say, in many parts of the country and especially in the South, the Civil War, which ended 152 years ago with the Lee’s surrender in Appomattox in 1865, remains unresolved. The Lee statue in Charlottesville, VA went up in 1924. What was the compelling need to honor him 59 years after the surrender? I don’t know. I do know that the proliferation of statues and other honors for Confederate leaders throughout the South was to propagate the myth that the Civil War was fought by honorable men for the noble goal of protecting the rights of the states to self-governance and the freedom to make and live by their own laws. The other side of this myth was that the Civil War was certainly not for the ignoble purpose of maintaining slavery (on which the Southern states greatly depended to sustain their cotton-based economies.)

One of the remarkable facts of American history is that having lost the war, the South basically won the peace for at least a century. The post-war 13th Constitutional amendment banned slavery, the 14th required equal protection under the law and the 15th banned race based voting qualifications. While it couldn’t re-institute slavery, the South and some border states came up with a web of insidious local laws and regulations based on a “separate but equal” system. And so began the Jim Crow era in which blacks were treated like third class citizens and were effectively blocked from political participation. This situation prevailed until the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 65 - one hundred years after the end of the Civil War.

The question of how the South was able to impose its will for so long is a tantalizing one. This is a complex question and there are many reasons, one of which I offer today – namely - that for decades the rest of the country acquiesced in the Southern myth that slavery was not the real issue in the Civil War. These were the themes of major national cultural influences such as the book and the movie Gone With The Wind (where the white folk were the victims and were so kind to the darkies).

Furthermore, I would argue, there were elements of buying the myth even on the reliably liberal PBS. In Ken Burns epic Civil War series, much was laudable and in no way am I accusing PBS or Ken Burns of racism. But it is a fact that Southern historian Shelby Foote was by far the most used “expert” in this telling of the Civil War story. In the eleven hour series, his kind face and/or smooth Southern drawl were featured for more than an hour. He tells great anecdotes but says little about slavery. In contrast Professor Barbara Fields, a black historian from Columbia University is given only about ten minutes.

Burns makes no apologies. In a Washington Post interview in 2015, he praises Foote for his contribution to the narrative of the program but goes on, “I think Barbara in 9,10,11 times next to Shelby’s 89 times- some intern counted and I’m trusting the number – you’re absolutely right” that her version of history has more substance. At another point, speaking of Fields, Burns says, “The, Civil War, as she says in the very last episode, is not only still going on but can still be lost, which is a hugely important thing.” Indeed.

Still, given the large discrepancies in their time on-air, who remembers Fields as compared to Foote? We do know Foote has publicly stated that he would have joined the Confederacy which he believed fought for some good things, like states’ rights; that slavery was a huge sin, but that emancipation was almost as great a sin because slaves weren’t prepared to be free - a position taken by Robert E. Lee.

Given Trump’s evident support for Civil War monuments like Lee’s, I fear we can now expect the extreme right to continue to use them as a way of spreading its anti-black, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic ideology- most certainly to no good end.

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