It took only 12 years after the founding of Jamestown for the South to take a sip form the poisoned chalice of white supremacy. The region, like much of the Soviet empire, was literally built by slave labor. And one year removed from the 400th anniversary of the importation of the first enslaved Africans to Virginia, Black people are in the streets protesting this most enduring American injustice. It is time for white Southerners to take stock of their society’s historical crimes and fully, finally repudiate them.
The transatlantic slave trade was one of the most devastating atrocities in human history. 18 million people were trafficked across the Atlantic Ocean over the course of four centuries; huge numbers of them died either in the Middle Passage or on plantations. 350,000 African people were brought to the future US in chains, and they lived and died here in a state of unfreedom for 12 generations. Only 4%–yes, 1 in 25–American slaves lived until the age of 60, so brutal were the conditions for enslaved people on Southern plantations.
The South went to war for this evil system and paid an enormous price in blood for a dishonorable–and losing–cause. 22% of Southern white males in their early 20’s died in the Civil War. Fully 620,000 Americans lost their lives at the hands of their countrymen, entirely due to the decision of the white South to start a war with the US military in the hope of perpetuating a slave society. The horrors of the Civil War cannot just be described in statistical terms. It was a time of unspeakable atrocities. General Nathan Bedford Forrest presided over the massacre of hundreds of African American Union troops at Fort Pillow. As one of his subordinates testified, “Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued.”
White Southerners should not embarrass themselves by talking about “tariffs” or the tenth amendment. By the 1850’s, every other political issue had receded far into the background behind the overwhelming moral force of slavery, its existence, and its expansion. Even as far back as the 1830’s, slaveholding elites considered their constitutional theory of states’ rights to be a tool for the eventual negation of abolition. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has observed, Lost Cause history is the intellectual equivalent of creationism. There is no respectable defense of it whatsoever.
So, put away your Confederate flag, stop venerating the cheap mass-produced monuments to white-supremacist killers like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and finally repudiate the murderous ideology that has defined and poisoned Southern society sine 1619. That is your moral imperative. And this is your hope: one of Lee’s top lieutenants, James Longstreet, had a profound change of heart after the war, becoming mayor of New Orleans and staunchly supporting Black equality. No one–and no region–is irredeemable. But it requires the long, hard work of reflection and atonement to bring that redemption about.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.