As white supremacists and neo-Nazis crawl out of the woodwork and try to infest our communities with hate, it is important to contest their revisionist history.
Yes, take down the statues that were erected to whitewash the Confederate cause and directly or indirectly support white supremacy. Yes, take down the Confederate battle flags that were placed there for the same reason. Yes, rename schools, roads and parks that honor prominent Confederates.
But also, states, cities, counties and school districts should review the untruths currently taught in our schools about the Civil War and its aftermath. Many textbooks still incorporate these politically-motivated lies.
You’ve probably heard that Trumpism stems from white grievance, a series of lies that make less-educated whites believe they are the victims of discrimination.
This story is popular in far-right media, and diverts attention away from the real culprits – the rich and powerful who, over the past 40 years, have systematically redirected the fruits of American productivity away from workers and into their own pockets, destroying economic security by closing factories, outsourcing jobs, busting unions, abusing customers, and cutting middle-class wages and benefits.
But there is another right-wing story that has received little attention until recently. It is the myth of the Confederacy. And this series of falsehoods does not require the sponsorship of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh or Breitbart – it comes directly from our grade-school history books.
Romanticizing the Confederacy
Didn’t your history book say that the Civil War was about “states’ rights” rather than slavery? Might it have referred to the “War Between the States,” a name that implies the two sides were equally to blame? Wasn’t Robert E. Lee described as a kind man who didn’t really believe in slavery?
Perhaps the Confederate battle flag was offered as a non-racist symbol of the south? And didn’t your history book assert that Ulysses S. Grant was one of our worst presidents, both corrupt and a drunk? Remember?
All of this – the entire romanticizing of the Confederacy and the demonizing of the Confederacy’s opponents – is fake news. It was invented for political purposes – like the cultivation of white victimhood today – and in no way represents what people thought or said during the Civil War or its aftermath.
The Gallant South
Let’s revisit the Gallant South, and examine the real history of the Confederacy, point by point:
Modern historians, referring to the original documents and statements of the time, do not question that slavery was the primary cause of the South’s rebellion. As the Confederacy’s vice president explained in his famous Cornerstone Speech:
The new [confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution – American slavery as it exists amongst us – the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.
There was no war “between the states.” The Civil War was a rebellion against the central government – a revolution against the United States of America.
The phrase “War Between the States” was not in general use until after the war and not particularly well-known until the United Daughters of the Confederacy promoted the name in the 20th Century. The term, designed to absolve the south of blame, is simply false.
In fact, Lee was a rather cruel slaveowner. His army was ruthless to black soldiers and civilians. He publicly and privately supported slavery, argued that slavery was good for Black Americans. Lee strongly opposed emancipation. He was not kind, understanding or Christian to black Americans.
For more than 150 years, the Confederate Battle Flag has been used to symbolize anti-black discrimination and violence, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, segregation, and resistance to desegregation. There is really no debate that its re-adoption and use since 1948 has been an open statement of white supremacy and opposition to civil rights for African Americans. Non-racists should not display it.
My school textbook ranked Grant as the worst president. This is pure fabrication, based on the 20th-century writings of pro-Confederacy historians.
Modern historians rank Grant in the middle tier of presidents, while Americans at the time adored him. His memoir was a massive bestseller and his death in 1885 “brought a tidal wave of emotional eulogizing.” There is no objective evidence that, as a general or president, he was ever “a drunk.”
The Cost of Myths
These myths about the Confederacy have helped to fuel the current outpourings of hate. It is time for American governments to step up and tell the truth about our nation’s history.
Governments should be held accountable, and investigate whether Confederate myths are still foisted on our schoolchildren. When such myths are found, we should tear them down, too, and in their place build up a foundation for our culture that is based on historical accuracy.
Truth is the best remedy for hate.
Bernie Horn is the Senior Director for Policy and Communication at the Public Leadership Institute.