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Confessions of a former neo-Confederate

Who believes slavery wasn’t really that bad? I did.

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It’s a strange sight: an enormous concrete obelisk, looking a whole lot like the Washington Monument, rising above the treetops about 10 miles east of Hopkinsville, Kentucky. It’s the Jefferson Davis Monument, the second-tallest obelisk in the world, erected in 1924 near the birthplace of the Confederacy’s only president.

“It’s creepy here,” my father-in-law said. An obelisk in the middle of nowhere is creepy enough, but he was also referring to the other visitors — a few bikers, a few folks wearing Confederate flag T-shirts, everyone white. For most of them, the monument was more than a curiosity. It was a shrine.

“These people,” he continued, “are real neo-Confederate types, aren’t they?” After walking around the obelisk once, he and my wife were ready to go. They had no interest in taking the elevator to the observation room at the top, where you can see miles of farmland and not much else. I begrudgingly agreed to leave.

The Jefferson Davis Monument in the Jefferson Davis Monument State Historic Site, Todd County, Kentucky.
Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Less than a decade ago I was one of those people my father-in-law was afraid of. I believed slavery in the antebellum South wasn't as awful as some people made it out to be. I believed the Confederacy seceded to preserve states’ rights, not slavery. I thought Reconstruction was a mistake, a prime example of federal overreach. And I insisted the Confederate flag was a symbol of Southern pride, not racism. If Dylann Roof had gone to my high school and we had talked about American history, we would have agreed on a lot.

I worry sometimes it’s too easy to dismiss neo-Confederates as a fringe group. With every victory in the campaign against Confederate iconography in the public square — a flag removed from the South Carolina statehouse grounds, a Jefferson Davis statue taken down at the University of Texas — the Lost Cause seems weaker and less relevant.

But neo-Confederate ideas are more pervasive than we like to admit. They’re not limited to the South or the far right. And they’re harder to rout out than a few flags and statues. In January we heard Hillary Clinton repeat the old Lost Cause line that Reconstruction should have been less “rancorous” and more “forgiving” of former Confederates, gliding across the fact that this would have occurred at the expense of black people’s freedom.

A McClatchy-Marist poll in 2015 found that 43 percent of Americans oppose removing the Confederate flag from government buildings and 41 percent believe slavery was not the primary cause of the Civil War. In the latter case, the percentage is roughly the same across all age groups.

I’m not the kind of person you'd typically picture as a neo-Confederate. I’m not an alt-right Twitter egg. I don’t own a gun. I’m a liberal, college-educated white guy in my late 20s who grew up in the Memphis suburbs and is currently working on a PhD in history — someone you could point to as evidence for the “purpling” of the South. Yet into my early college years I held beliefs about our nation’s past similar to those held by folks who unfurl Confederate flags at Trump rallies. By explaining why an otherwise un-fringey person believed these things, perhaps I can help explain why these beliefs still live on.

How I fell in love with the Lost Cause

When I was a little kid, my parents took me to the Shiloh battlefield, where on April 6 and 7, 1862, more men died than in all of America’s previous wars combined. My parents got me two little polyester flags at the gift store, one Union and one Confederate, and on the way out the store, I started dragging the Confederate flag on the ground. My logic ran: America was good, the Confederacy fought against America, so the Confederacy was bad. My dad scolded me, mainly because he was afraid I’d piss someone off, and I held both flags up. That day I began to learn I wasn’t just American; I was also Southern.

As I got older, I worried I wasn’t Southern enough. According to a map, I was from the South, but my home was the suburb of Bartlett, Tennessee, where my regular haunts included Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, Hollywood Video, and the Wolfchase Galleria. I was an overweight bookworm and classic movie buff with bad acne and OCD tics. Southernness stood for everything I wished I was: slimmer, manlier, more athletic, firmer in my Christian faith.

Every summer I attended a church camp in rural West Tennessee, and I coveted the boys who carried pocketknives, built fires, and went fishing early in the morning. One time I went up to them and asked, “How are you guys doing?” and they told me to stop talking like a Yankee. Within a couple of days I switched to “y’all,” a habit that’s stuck with me since.

The shame that drove me to say “y’all” struck me again at the Old Country Store & Restaurant in Jackson, Tennessee, locally famous for its cracklin’ cornbread, player piano, and ice cream parlor. I was 12 years old, perusing the gift shop, when a man in a cowboy hat held up a portrait of a bearded general. “Do you know who this is?” I realized he was talking to me and stuttered back, “Sherman?” not even sure which side Sherman was on. The man shook his head and said with a sad smile, “That’s Stonewall Jackson.” When we got back home, I asked my parents to take me to the nearby Hollywood Video, where I rented the first two episodes of Ken Burns’s Civil War.

I quickly devoured all 11.5 hours of the series, and though the documentary is far from neo-Confederate propaganda, I was drawn to its Lost Cause elements. There were the magnolia-drenched words of novelist Shelby Foote, who blamed the war on the American people’s failure to compromise. There was the story of how the Northern Lights made an unusual appearance after a Confederate victory in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which Lee’s men saw as a sign of God’s favor. There were the final words of Stonewall Jackson, accidentally shot by one of his own men: “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” When the narrator related how, at the 1913 Gettysburg reunion, veterans from the opposing sides embraced and shook hands over the stone wall at the Angle, I cried.

I became an active purveyor of the Lost Cause. I tried to convince a black classmate that the Ku Klux Klan had not started out bad. I explained to one of my history teachers, also black, that though slavery was inhuman it was not necessarily inhumane, since it was in the slave owner’s interest to take care of his property. My middle school prohibited students from wearing anything with the Confederate flag on it, so for a countywide literary contest I submitted a satirical essay in the vein of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” — I told you I was a nerd — that endorsed the Confederate flag ban and then recommended a similar ban on the US flag, given our crimes against Native Americans, and went on down the reductio ad absurdum road, finally insisting we remove War and Peace from the school library since it could be used as a weapon. I did not win the contest.

I went to Bolton High School, one of the largest public schools in Tennessee (and named after a Memphis slave trader who was shot and killed by a partner in his firm). I took an Advanced Placement US history class, which helped me earn college credit; we had an enthusiastic teacher and were assigned serious (if dated) scholarly work like Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition. In other words, this was probably one of the best history classes offered by a public school in Tennessee. Yet the way the course was structured only strengthened my neo-Confederate ideas.

The teacher presented the first 80 years of our nation’s history as an ongoing debate over states’ rights. I’m not sure he did this consciously, and we were too focused on minutiae to see the big picture, but the events of American history were arranged to suggest the Civil War was inevitable and not truly about slavery. Anti-federalists opposed the Constitution because they didn't want a stronger central government. The state legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky declared they could override the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 because they violated civil liberties.

Some New Englanders considered secession in response to the War of 1812. South Carolina tried to nullify a federal tariff within its borders and was only dissuaded by the threat of military force. It seemed that the Civil War could’ve been fought over tariffs, banking, anything — it just happened to break out over slavery in 1861. Slavery was only the incidental cause of the war, the root cause being a debate over how much power the federal government should have.

This narrative gave me permission to ignore the issue of slavery altogether and instead celebrate the Confederacy as a noble stand against centralized authority. Using that logic, I could even be a neo-Confederate and an anti-Bush liberal at the same time.

How my allegiance to the Confederacy unraveled

The peak of my neo-Confederate career also began its unraveling. When I was 16, my dad and I attended a meeting of a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization dedicated to “preserving the history and legacy” of the Confederacy. I mainly wanted to go because there was going to be a lecture on Jefferson Davis’s education, but I sympathized with their overall mission. I was also eligible to become a member since my great-great-grandfather Baucum Hall Holland fought for the Confederacy — and died bearing his regiment’s colors at the Battle of Stones River.

The members were excited to learn all of this as we chatted before the meeting began. Most of the men were more than three times my age. There was one other teenager there, the kind of guy who wore camouflage and spat tobacco juice into an empty Gatorade bottle. I both looked down on him and wished I were more like him. He was complaining about his high school's prohibition of the Confederate flag, so I went up to him and trotted out my line about how we might as well ban the US flag. He didn't care for the unpatriotic implications of my argument.

Already uneasy, I grew more so once the meeting was called to order. Everyone pledged allegiance to the American flag, then turned toward the Confederate flag and recited: “I salute the Confederate flag with affection, reverence, and undying devotion to the cause for which it stands.” Hold on, I thought. This was downright schizophrenic. How could we honor the Confederacy and the nation it fought to leave?

To my disappointment, the scheduled lecturer wasn’t able to come, so instead the men discussed the logistics for an imminent march in support of the controversial Nathan Bedford Forrest monument on Union Avenue. All I could think about was that day at Shiloh, when I was told to hold up both the Confederate and American flags. And I wondered whether my first gut instinct had been the right one.

After the meeting, my dad and I got in the car. “That was silly, wasn't it?” he said. He doesn’t use the word silly lightly.

“Yeah,” I said.

From that day on, I became increasingly skeptical of the Lost Cause. I wondered why, if white Southerners were so quick to insist slavery wasn’t that bad, then why did we also insist the Confederacy didn’t fight to preserve it? Was slavery a shameful institution or not? What was the war really about? And where had my wrongheaded ideas come from? It was in part these questions that led me to major in history as an undergrad and then continue studying history in graduate school. I wanted better tools to answer these questions, and my training as a historian gave me those tools.

As I read different historians, considered their arguments, sifted through their footnotes, and consulted their primary sources, it became clear the Lost Cause was a pernicious myth. There was nothing benevolent about a world in which an enslaved person could wake up any given morning to find her children had been sold.

Nor was slavery a mere wedge issue. Serious money was at stake. Slaves were worth more money in 1860 than all of America's factories, railroads, and banks combined. And it wasn't just slaveholders who had a stake in the so-called peculiar institution, because every white Southerner, even the poorest dirt farmer, drew comfort from the knowledge they would never be on the bottom rung of society so long as slavery remained in place.

The Confederates were clear: They were seceding to protect slavery. Just read Mississippi’s secession ordinance: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” Or read the Confederate vice president’s proclamation that the “cornerstone” of the new nation was “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”

John Moore/Getty Images

White Southerners certainly weren’t states' rights doctrinaires. They were perfectly fine with an aggressive federal government if it worked to preserve slavery. They had no objection when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring free states to aid in the return of runaway slaves — overriding many of those states' own laws. When South Carolina issued its secession ordinance in 1860, it even complained that Northern states had passed laws nullifying the Fugitive Slave Act; complained, in other words, that Northern states were refusing to obey the federal government! It was only when the federal government threatened the institution of slavery that the Southern elite invoked states’ rights.

After the Confederacy was defeated, white Southerners had to defend something that looked an awful lot like treason. One way they did this was by creating the Lost Cause myth. And many white Northerners were eager to buy into the myth. Actually grappling with the ugly truth of slavery would distract from the project of rebuilding the American nation. It was easier to say both sides fought bravely and it was time to bury the hatchet and shake hands. There was no room, of course, for black people's civil rights in this story. It was a reconciliation for white people.

Once you learn this history, you see it all around you. The slave trader Wade Bolton isn't just my high school's namesake; the school sits on his former plantation and enjoys an endowment he funded with the profits he gained selling human flesh. When my great-great-grandfather died at Stones River, he was giving his life to keep black people in chains.

I look at my own past — valorizing slaveholders and traitors, whitesplaining history to my middle school teacher and to my classmates — and I cannot be sure, as many white liberals are, that if I had lived in the 19th century I would have been an abolitionist. I cannot be sure I do not even now support systems of cruelty and injustice that future historians will view with clear-eyed contempt.

Why lies about the Confederacy are so dangerous

I’m an outlier because I’m such a history geek and dug so deep into the Lost Cause myth that I came out the other side. But most people don’t think about these questions that deeply, and they just assume that what they’re taught is the objective truth.

I suspect most Americans who believe that slavery was somehow benevolent, that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, or that Reconstruction was a disaster don’t know these are controversial beliefs. When Bill O’Reilly said that the slaves who built the White House “were well-fed and had decent lodgings,” I think he thought this was the historical consensus. If you think that way, then you can say your detractors are just blinded by political correctness.

It’s dangerous to let these lies about our history linger on, and that danger remains even if all the Confederate flags come down. The danger is if you build your history on lies, a lot of people won’t fit in that history — and if they don’t fit in your history, then it’s easy to think they don’t fit in anywhere. A history built on lies begets exclusion.

Let me give you an idea what I mean. As an undergrad, I learned one of my professors was teaching a course on Southern literature the following semester. And I was taken aback to hear he was going to assign Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — not because it’s mostly set in New York but because Ralph Ellison was black. Until then, I had unconsciously thought that all Southerners were white.

My neo-Confederate history twisted itself in knots trying to defend white Southerners, and in doing so left no room for African Americans. It was really easier for my worldview if they weren’t in the history at all. The South of my imagination — the South I somehow feared I’d let down — was a South in which large swaths of its people, culture, and history were erased. It was a South designed to exclude people, even me.

Here’s what O’Reilly doesn’t get about Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. When she said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” her main purpose wasn’t to indict white people for owning slaves. Her purpose was to include black people in the grand narrative of American history, from the nation’s founding to the present day. If you want to include all Americans in the story of America, then there’s no getting around slavery, or the oppression of women, or the theft of Native American land, or the exploitation of immigrant labor. If you want to spare white people’s feelings, on the other hand, you have to get around all that.

Denial might spare you some pain in the short term. But you’ll miss out on a lot. Once I faced the truth of Southern history, I could actually be proud of being Southern. Because the South belongs as much to my great-grandfather George Black, a Cherokee Indian from East Tennessee who fought for the Union, as it does to Baucum Hall Holland.

The South belongs as much to Bree Newsome, the black woman who climbed up the pole on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds and took down the Confederate flag, as it does to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The South belongs to the Vietnamese shrimper burning incense on his trawler in Louisiana, and to the nine-months-pregnant Latina woman plucking chickens at a Tyson plant in Arkansas.

I was never going to be good enough for the South built on lies. The real South actually loves me back.

William Black is a PhD candidate in history at Rice University. Find him on Twitter @williamrblack.

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