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At the Charles Ellis Elementary School in segregated Savannah, in the early 1950s, this is what we learned about the War Between the States: that it was about states’ rights, not slavery, that slavery, while not good, wasn’t as bad as you might think, because the slaves were taken care of and were generally happy with their lot. We learned that Robert E. Lee was a statesman and a gentleman, and the best general on either side. We learned that he was defeated by Grant only because the Yankees had more troops, more cannon, and more money. We learned that the lost cause was a just cause. We learned that Sherman was the devil incarnate.

robert e lee

In the twilight of legal segregation, this was the standard line that sought, quite consciously, to imbue among young whites a sense that the Old South and its cause deserved respect, even reverence. And of course we all knew about the statues in the squares uptown, the respected Confederate generals and soldiers. Their presence reinforced the sense of awe for what was depicted as the great and tragic struggle for Southern independence.

I had then, and have now, no concrete idea what my African-American contemporaries were taught in their separate and unequal schools. Clarence Thomas grew up in Savannah a few years later, and he probably doesn’t know much about that either, since he had the good fortune to be educated in integrated Catholic schools.

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The South today, after desegregation, has devised other, more subtle ways of keeping the blacks down, and most Southern whites today will be quick to condemn open racism.

What we were not told was that this whole package affirming Southern heritage was devised in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after the failure of Reconstruction, to support a militant program of segregation, disenfranchisement and brutal repression, a program designed to keep the blacks “in their place,” notwithstanding the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the 14th Amendment guaranteeing the rights of citizenship to African Americans, and the 15th Amendment guaranteeing their right to vote. None of these amendments were enforced in the South in the early 1950s. We were not encouraged to wonder why.

This is the Southern heritage defended by the white supremacists in Charlottesville. Most contemporary Southern whites were probably embarrassed by the explicit racism of this radical fringe. The South today, after desegregation, has devised other, more subtle ways of keeping the blacks down, and most Southern whites today will be quick to condemn open racism. But when most of the poor are black, and most blacks are poor, they will simply lack the means to live in most white neighborhoods, and thus won’t have access to the good schools in those neighborhoods. Class stands in for race.

The white South has adapted to black enfranchisement and desegregation by increasingly surrendering the central cities to black control (often, as in Charlottesville, in coalition with white liberals). Most Southern cities now have a Martin Luther King Boulevard that is the main drag through the black part of town. The whites retreat to the suburbs. But then, when black-controlled city governments decide to take down the Confederate monuments, the whites feel like their heritage is being disrespected. Most whites don’t want to look too closely at what that heritage really was. They’re still comfortable with the story that I learned back in the 1950s.

Ironically, Robert E. Lee himself wanted no part of these memorials. He was for healing the country, not perpetuating division. He was a statesman.

john peeler

John Peeler