We’ve all heard the saying “History is written by the winners.” In the South, history was written by the losers and the winners let them get away with it. The story of the Civil War that white people told for the past one hundred twenty years or so is wrong. Today, we’re suffering the consequences of misinforming generations of Americans to maintain a corrupt and unjust social order.
In school, Southerners were taught that while slavery was wrong, the instincts that led people to war in 1861 were noble. The men who led the rebellion were defending chivalry, loyalty, and, yes, Christian values. We were told that generals like Robert E. Lee reluctantly joined the Confederacy because they were defending their states and, when their states seceded from the Union, they believed their patriotic duty was to leave with them. Despite the long odds, these brave soldiers went to battle to defend their homelands. It was, as many Southerners called it, the War of Northern Aggression.
After the war, we were taught, the period of Reconstruction imposed terrible sanctions on Southerners, mostly white ones. Freed slaves with little understanding of government joined opportunistic northerners to loot what was left of Southern fortunes. According to our books, Reconstruction was a depressing era of want and corruption. Fortunately, it only lasted twelve years and then Southerners were able to begin restoring normalcy without northern intervention.
The rest of history gets a bit murky. We weren’t taught too much about the period that led to Jim Crow, just that a populist coalition of Blacks, farmers, and Republicans was beaten back by Democrats who imposed strict segregation. This brutality of white Southerners was buried and instead the myth of the Lost Cause took hold. Fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the glorification of the Southern leaders and the honor of their service showed up in monument after monument. Virtually every courthouse in the South is guarded by a larger-than-life statue of a Confederate soldier.
The brutal part of our history was obscured. We never heard about the coup in Wilmington or the massacre in Tulsa or the one in Rosewood, Florida, or the one I read about today in Elgin, Arkansas. We were not told that the politicians who led us into the 20th century used vigilantes to secure their victories in elections and that the press was complicit in stirring up the sentiments that led to shocking incidents of violence. And we were never told that terrorist organizations suppressed the vote through threats of violence backed up by actual incidents of it.
In fact, the Civil War was led and fought by slaveowners to protect their investments in humans. The whitewashed versions of men like Lee obscured the brutality of the institution they defended and instead portrayed a romantic antebellum South. Southern historians and writers perpetuated the narrative until we watched Walt Disney present the sanitized Song of the South, complete with happy, fulfilled slaves in their humble, submissive conditions.
The protesters pulling down statues are reacting to a political establishment that has glorified a terrible past for too long. We should not erase history, but we also shouldn’t continue a narrative that is largely false. The government should never have allowed monuments to traitors to dominate public spaces in the first place and they should have taken them down or moved them years ago.
There will surely be overreaction and excesses as we start to retell the American story from the perspective of African Americans as well as white people. We will miss nuances, ignoring the truly noble acts of some people who also committed terrible ones. The fault is less with the protesters, though, than the keepers of history who allowed the myths to overshadow the truth for so long. The politicians, academics, writers and news organizations that accepted the myth of the Lost Cause for too long deserve much of the blame that 150 years after the war we still have politicians defending the glory of successionists.
One of the key lessons we can learn is that fake news leads to fake history. In the South, we used a false narrative that was accepted and largely unquestioned by society’s elites to protect a social order that left Black Americans more vulnerable to abuses of the law and to deny them equal opportunity. Unravelling and retelling that history is difficult and we need to be careful to get it right. History is usually more gray than black or white.
We must also use this lesson to push back against the purveyors of misinformation and disinformation. Fox News and Donald Trump would write a history that largely continues the narrative of the Lost Cause. Whites Americans are victims despite advantages many minorities have long been denied. The wealthy in America reached their station through hard work and sacrifice, not inherited wealth or access to powerful networks.
At the same time, we should resist those who demand only one perspective be allowed in our newspapers or on our televisions or podcasts. The goal should be truth, regardless of how uncomfortable it might be. And we should acknowledge that the view looking backward is much clearer than the one in the present. The history of today’s events will be sorted out years from now. Freedom of the press and speech will lead to a more accurate retelling than suppression of it.
For now, we need to report the stories left untold back then so we can get to the truth of how we got here today. As the saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. It’s time we stop repeating the false narrative that obscures the lasting damage of white supremacy.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >