The Legacy of Slavery Today
For most of us who are not Black, when we think of the antebellum South, we picture warm, lazy days with well-dressed, cultured gentlemen and ladies sitting on long porches of large white houses sipping iced tea and mint juleps, and discussing works of literature.
Happy Black folks would be singing while they picked cotton; maybe a Stephen Foster tune; and maybe strumming on a banjo while they sang; or maybe waving to the happy folks on the passing steam boat; and maybe singing a rousing chorus of “Dixie.”
It’s a comforting picture in a way: a prosperous, contented time filled with prosperous, contented people.
Sort of like our ideas about the Old West, peopled with white-hatted good-guy sheriffs, honest and hard-working storekeepers, and saloon girls with hearts of gold.
And just like these pictures of the Old West, this picture of the Old South is total mythology; more a product of novels and Hollywood than the real world.
So now that we understand a little more about what the Old South wasn’t, we need to understand more of what it was, so we can see how much of it is still with us.
The Old South comprised eleven states, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia; and was, in the words of one writer, one of the most unpleasant and hellish societies ever invented by man. It was a mostly agrarian culture; farms raised cotton, indigo, rice, corn, sugarcane, and tobacco. Its weakness was an economic system built on owning other human beings as property. Slaves did nearly all the work that needed doing. And as such, it was a hugely inefficient system.
Big, white, “Gone With The Wind” houses? There were some, but planters who were rich enough to own them didn’t usually live in them. They preferred Northern cities like Baltimore or New York, which had better weather and fewer insects. Some lived in Europe. They’d visit their grand estates for a few weeks during the winter, have their parties, then go back home.
The middle-level planter had a much less glorious life. These houses were rarely painted, used oiled paper in place of window glass, had no books or newspapers (literacy was not common, anyway); sanitary arrangements were frequently primitive, even by standards of the time.
Day-to-day management was usually trusted to a white overseer; but except for him and the planter’s family, everyone else on the plantation was most likely Black. Of the South’s total population of 9 million people, four million were Black.
By 1830 slavery in the South existed in many different forms. Blacks were enslaved on small farms, large plantations, in cities and towns, inside homes, out in the fields, and in industry and transportation. And although some slaves were treated better than others, slaves were always considered property, and they were property because they were Black. And their status as property was enforced by violence -- actual or threatened.
Slavery gave whites a group of people to feel superior to. They may have been poor, but they were not slaves, and they were not Black. They had power simply by being white.
The South had no middle class as we think of it. Public schools were rare, so literacy, as noted, was not common even among whites. Teaching Blacks to read was a felony, due to fears of rebellion. The official line was that slaves could not learn anyway, and were suitable only for field labor.
Most whites did not own slaves. Even so, most white Southerners did aspire to slave ownership, in order to share in the wealth and power the large slaveholders exercised. In addition, slavery gave whites a group of people to feel superior to. They may have been poor, but they were not slaves, and they were not Black. They had power simply by being white.
To this end a “culture of honor” came into being, where a man’s personal worth was measured by how others behaved toward him. Trivial slights had to be answered immediately and with physical force if necessary. Homicides resulting from quarrels did not usually result in convictions.
And this attitude, according to some historians, gave the mostly lower-class Confederate soldiers one of their main motives to fight in the Civil War: the right to look down on slaves, who could easily become their social equals after emancipation.
So what the antebellum South was, was a mostly agricultural land ruled by a few wealthy white planters, who ruled by right of birth. These self-claimed rights were supported by their religions, especially the stern Presbyterians and even-sterner Baptists.
So, if that was then, is this, well, is this then also?
Consider the following:
Southern Democrats, particularly through the 1930s and 1950s, were known as “Dixiecrats.” They belonged to the Democratic Party, but their policies and politics echoed those of the antebellum South.
After President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965, these Dixiecrats left the Democratic party and became far-right, extremist Republicans, still focused on keeping Blacks in a subservient status.
In 1956, segregationist Southern Democrats outlined a policy of “massive resistance” in response to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling desegregating public schools.
Today, the Republican Party, particularly in the South, is following a similar path of massive resistance when it comes to the Affordable Care Act and any other major policy initiative proposed by President Obama, in an effort to discredit him.
According to The New York Times, twenty-six states—all-but-three controlled by the GOP—have declined the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, thereby denying health insurance coverage to 8 million Americans. “Every state in the Deep South, with the exception of Arkansas, has rejected the expansion,” writes The Times.
The Culture of Honor
Historian Roger Lane has concluded that the extraordinarily high murder rate in the United States is a joint result of the “Culture of Honor" of the antebellum South and its use of lethal force to control slaves, combined with the frontier gun culture and its enshrinement of firearm ownership.
Lane argues that the current passion for gun ownership descends from a fear of slave revolt. Even in the U.S., high murder rates are found only in the southern tier of states from California to Virginia, plus urban areas farther north where large numbers of residents emigrated from the South.
The Culture of Disrespect
From the first night of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Republican Party leadership agreed to agree to nothing the new President wanted, in an effort to discredit him. This group that met in a back room at The Famous Steakhouse, in Washington, DC, while the inaugural was going on, was mostly Southern: Newt Gingrich, the former Representative from Georgia; Eric Cantor (R-VA); Paul Ryan (R-WI); Jim DeMint (R-SC); and Jon Kyle (R-AZ).
This culture of disrespect has shown itself in actions, ranging from the childish, as when Rep. Joe Wilson (real name Addison Graves Wilson, Sr., SC-CD2) yelled out, “You Lie” during President Obama’s 2009 State of the Union speech;. . .
. . .or when Los Alamitos, California, Mayor Dean Grose felt it was humorous to send out an email in early 2009 that depicted the White House lawn planted with watermelons, under the title "No Easter egg hunt this year."
But this culture of disrespect has a grimly serious side, as well. The group that met in the steakhouse on inauguration night is also the same group that has cost taxpayers billions of dollars during the numerous times they shut down the government, blaming the President; has wasted more billions of dollars voting (unsuccessfully) to defund the Affordable Care Act; has passed numerous acts of legislation to hamper the ability of Blacks to vote; and has pushed their anti-women, anti-labor, anti-abortion, anti-GLBT, anti-human rights legislative efforts, all in efforts to discredit and weaken the President.
Simple as that?
But, maybe it’s more basic than that.
Maybe it comes down to Southern GOP leaders being still upset over having Rev. Martin Luther King’s birthday, January 15, made a national holiday. It did, after all, replace Robert E. Lee’s birthday, January 19, celebrated in many Southern states.
And all the fuss totally ignores the interesting possibility that America’s first Black President may have been a Republican.
- “Dixie” was written by a Yankee. Daniel Decatur Emmett wrote it in the 1850s for a blackface minstrel show. Emmett was born in Ohio and lived most of his life in New York. It was not the National Anthem of the Confederate States. Since the Confederate States of America was never a nation, there was no national anthem.
- “Suwannee River” was written by a Yankee. Stephen Foster, who wrote paeans to the South like this (also known as “Old Folks at Home”) and “My Old Kentucky Home” was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in New York. He spent only one week of his life in the South, on a trip to Baton Rouge.
- Glass houses: Northern states like Connecticut and Rhode Island got very rich from the slave trade as merchants or ship owners. Buying, selling, and shipping slaves was so profitable for Rhode Island families like the Browns that their generous donations to Rhode Island College resulted in the grateful college changing its name to Brown University, as it is still known.
More Info At:
- By the Numbers: The Roots of Homicide, Doyle, Rodger; Scientific American Magazine, October 2000
- C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, Mockumentary video, 2004
- Inside Obama’s Presidency: The Republicans’ Plan for the New President; PBS Frontline. January 15, 2013, 1:24 pm ET by Azmat Khan
- Look Away! Davis, William C. 2002, The Free Press
- The First Black President, LA Progressive
- Southern Culture, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, North Carolina
- The GOP’s White Southern Republican Problem
- The Myth of the Antebellum SouthThe Voting Rights Act of 1965