This year Easter Sunday fell on the anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In the previous few days the UK, whose lingering racial problems relate to the export of empire, rather than the import of slaves, had released an inquiry commissioned by the Johnson government to prove there was no “institutional racism” in the UK (spoiler: it purported to do just that, but didn’t). In America, Major League Baseball (MLB) announced that in response to what some might consider institutional racism in Georgia’s Republican legislature passing a raft of bills aimed at the returning the state’s voting rights a huge step closer to the Jim Crow era, they were moving the All-Star game out of Atlanta. Yet it was only a few years ago the US Supreme Court, in a decision penned by John Roberts, had in 2013 dismantled most of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; in effect arguing, if not that institutional racism was dead, that it wasn’t a big enough deal anymore for the government to interfere with states making whatever voting rules they pleased.
At the start of the week, I was thinking of a way to bring this story with me to the BBC World Service Weekend on which I appeared Saturday April 10; one of the topics was the new voter suppression laws passed by the Georgia legislature. The piece included a pre-recorded interview with Georgia Republican Bubba McDonald which was so disingenuously false I didn’t get around to history as I tried to rapidly debunk his claims.
But before that, I had, in a stroke of pure synchronicity, picked up The War That Forged A Nation, a book of essays by America’s finest Civil War historian, James McPherson, which was sitting by my bedside waiting to be read. Its first chapter details how his Civil War obsession began when he was a graduate student in Baltimore, and grew out of what he calls “an episode” that occurred at that time in Charleston, South Carolina, during the beginning of commemorations of the war’s centenary in 1961, events that celebrate their 60th anniversary this week. This intrigued me, and I found an article in the Charleston City Paper detailing the events of 1961, written when the sesquicentennial plans in 2011, and their reporting in the main Charleston paper, ignored the 1961 incident.
As I researched further, I realised this incident served as an historic metaphor for the Civil War, enacted a century later, reminding us race remains the deep chasm in American society, and the devices we’ve used to try to bridge that chasm appear to now be just another part of our crumbling infrastructure.
The Centenary carried a mixed message for the states of the Old Confederacy, but despite its misgivings, Charleston, where the war began on April 12, 1861 when Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor, felt compelled to put its “best foot forward” lest, in the words of the director of the local museum, E. Milloy Burton, the war be commemorated exclusively “from the Northern point of view”. The state’s tourist guide referred to the Confederate War Centennial, since “the fight for independence was in no way a rebellion against civil authority”.
So Charleston put Confederate flags in front of every official building and school, and organized a ceremony, alongside a beauty pageant crowning “Miss Confederacy.” Parades would honor the fighters for what was remembered nobly as “the Lost Cause”. This would provide a sample showcase for the other states in the National Assembly of Centennial Commissions, which had chosen to hold their conference in Charleston to mark the start of the Centennial celebrations. And note, as the first-day cover of the stamp released to commemorate the start of the Centenary, this was presented as a truly bi-partisan effort: a war between two sides who’d reunited to reform the United States. But there was, it turned out, just one small problem.
When the delegates arrived at the Francis Marion Hotel (named for the legendary “Swamp Fox” guerrilla fighter against the British in the Revolutionary War) one of them, Mrs. Madaline Williams, was denied entry. In 1957, Mrs. Williams had become the first black woman elected to the New Jersey State Assembly. But she was black. In the face of her exclusion, a number of state delegations threatened to boycott the event. The fight went right to the top: President John Kennedy was the ex-officio president of the Centennial Commission, and he appealed to his old Senate friend, Fritz Hollings, now governor of South Carolina, for help. Instead, Hollings announced New Jersey was “playing politics” and neither a president nor a governor could “dictate” who a hotel had to serve. Kennedy finally convinced the Commission’s actual chairman, General Ulysses S Grant III, grandson of the former president, the Grant who finally accepted Robert E Lee’s surrender in 1865, to move his assembly to the US Navy’s base in Charleston harbor, facing Fort Sumter.
At which point, delegates from the Confederate states refused to move, in effect once again seceding (likely a lingering distaste for President Grant’s heirs helped), and stayed at the Frances Marion to hold their own assembly. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond blamed the northerners for their “cry for equality beyond reason”. Ashley Halsey Jr, a Charleston native who was an editor with the Saturday Evening Post in Philadelphia, wrote America now faced “the same situation which pushed the great moderate majority of peace-loving Americans into civil war.” He advised against “trying to change the South by sudden coercive pressure”.
“Sudden” pressure, one hundred years after the Civil War had freed America’s slaves and guaranteed them equal rights. Note how familiar the arguments sound today: “equality beyond reason” is what every group seeking equality get accused of doing. Bakers argue no government can force them to make cakes for gay weddings. “Playing politics” is what MLB is accused of doing. Pushing the “moderate majority” into violence was the defence of the 6 January insurrectionists in Washington. Does “white privilege” actually still exist? Well, it turned out Ashley Halsey Jr went on to edit a magazine for the National Rifle Association; his son Ashley Halsey III became a reporter for the Washington Post.
The following year, 1962, we took our only real “family” holiday and stopped in Washington, still a segregated city. My brother got vertigo at the top of the Washington monument; we rushed to the bottom and the restrooms, which were divided “white” and “colored”. When I asked my father if that was right, he said “no, it’s wrong, but that’s what they do down here”. I still remember the cold-eye a man aimed at my dad, which he dismissed as he saw to my brother. A couple of days later, on foot and lost, as was his wont, my dad asked a man for directions to the Smithsonian. “Follow me to the corner,” the man said. “I’ll point you the way”. So we did, and my sister took the man’s hand as we walked. People stopped and stared, because the man was black. By that time I was already a Civil War buff myself, but 1962 made me indelibly aware that the war was still being fought.
The Confederate flag raised “temporarily” over South Carolina’s state house in 1961 to honour the Centennial was not removed until 2015, and then only after white supremacist Dylan Roof murdered nine people worshiping at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in Charleston.
In 1905 the American philosopher George Santayana, born in Spain but raised in Boston immediately after the Civil War, wrote “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But William Faulkner, who understood better than most the lingering power of the South’s Lost Cause, wrote in 1936 that “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.” In 1961, Charleston mayor J Palmer Gaillard buried a 100-year time capsule under Washington Square in the city’s center. In a speech which sounds more like a warning, he said he hoped that the present “differences will be settled without arms, and when the capsule is opened our country will still be united.” Do we learn from the past, or do we repeat it? We’ve only 40 years to go.