January 18, 2010:
Warning: As you may have suspected, this is a lecture. On Dr. King's birthday, we often choose to celebrate his many accomplishments; I would like us to also remember how much progress still needs to be made to create the "level" playing field owed to blacks and other marginalized groups in the United States.
My intention is to provide you with facts as an antidote to the fictions and opinions that masquerade as knowledge in the current debate about race.
I hadn't intended to interrupt myself in busy season to post a sermon on race. I've never bothered you with my admiration for Thaddeus Stevens, my understanding of General Grant's campaign against Vicksburg, or the roots of the North's move toward abolition in the English Civil War. But a series of coincidences led to my spending a large portion of the pre-MLK-day weekend reading race and war-related books, and I got myself agitated. And one of the benefits of owning your very own soap box is you get to use it once in a while.
It all started about ten years ago, when I went to visit UConn's Law School in Hartford, CT. While I was there, I stopped to visit Mark Twain's house; I have the perhaps romanticized belief that seeing a person's house tells you something about that person. For instance, the Great Cynic had a greenhouse in which he raised orchids. I imagined a search for beauty in nature that he found lacking in his fellow man. As I was leaving, I noticed that Harriet Beecher Stowe had lived next door, and I thought, "How marvelous! What wonderful conversations over tea on a summer's night."
Last week I was recounting this story to one of my clients, and I laughed at myself, saying, "For all I know that man may have been a rabid racist." But fortunately, we now have Wiki, and I was able to answer my question in the blink of a mouse button: Twain did indeed live there at the same time as Stowe, and he was a staunch abolitionist. He even paid the full tuition of a black man attending Yale Law School. (see FN 61).
Since there was a biography, I headed over to Amazon. Alas, the set, published in 1912, is out of my budget. But I got one of those "people who looked at this book also looked at..." messages, and within two days I owned a very affordable copy of Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. And that's where the trouble began.
Did you know that, alive and well in the South in 2009, there's a group called "Children of the Confederacy" (C of C) in which little children are taught blatant lies about the Civil War?
The group has a Catechism the children are made to memorize. Mr. Horwitz gives this example:
Q: What was the feeling of the slaves towards their masters?
A: They were faithful and devoted and were always ready and willing to serve them.
(Horwitz, at p. 37).
Next Mr. Horwitz followed the group to lunch at a Salisbury, NC chain restaurant called Morrison's. The children's amuse-yourself place mat had a dot-to-dot Rebel Flag on one side, and map of the United States on the other, with blue and gray crayons for coloring the appropriate fealties. (Id. at p. 39).
And that's when I started to get agitated. This "Rebel Flag" myth has upset me ever since I moved to North Carolina in 1991 and found out that certain southern state houses want to fly the flag, either all the time or on special ceremonial occasions.
So let's clarify:
The "Rebel Flag" was never the flag of the Confederacy, nor of any Confederate State; it was used as a battle flag, and adopted by the Ku Klux Klan.
The belief that the South was right, that Lincoln was wrong, that there should still be slaves (or at least laws to keep blacks "in their place") is alive and well under the aegis of Neo-Confederates. The groups are not monolithic, and some members may simply be honoring great-grandfather Custis who lost a leg in battle, while others are waiting for the war to resume, as soon as the South has its strength back.
The C of C Catechism was published in 1954, shortly after the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Ed. The juxtaposition implies that racial integration is directly opposed to Southern values.
Any attempts to gloss over the racism of the Civil War are simply absurd. South Carolina, the first state to secede, repeatedly connected its actions with efforts to end slavery. In fact, it had announced in advance of the election of 1860 that it would secede if Lincoln was elected and did in fact secede before he ever took office, because he was a known abolitionist.
Now as to Dr. King:
He was a human being, and like all the rest of us, less than perfect. Nonetheless, he was sufficiently successful in upsetting the balance of power between the races that he was assassinated, almost certainly through a conspiracy which was almost certainly not headed by the poor schmuck who took the fall.
James Earl Ray recanted his confession repeatedly; more importantly, his story is not that of a master-mind of any sort. He spent almost every minute of his life in jail from the time he was 15, and his crimes tended toward the "stick 'em up" type of robbery, badly enough executed that he was back in jail before he could spend the money.
Dr. King gave enormous inspiration to the people being beaten, jailed and killed in the Civil Rights Movement. He motivated many good Americans of all colors and backgrounds to fight for the equality to which America aspires and to which all Americans have a right. Like every great leader, he deserves our respect and our recognition of his accomplishments, as well as our efforts to continue the work of his life in whatever way we can.
Most people will quote the famous "I Have a Dream" on Dr. King's birthday, but I have always preferred this one, made at a church in Birmingham during the voters' registration struggle.