On December 20, 1860, the state of South Carolina became the first ever to secede from he United States of America, beginning the inevitable progression towards the deadliest armed conflict our country has ever seen. Yesterday the battle flag of the Confederate States of America may have flown for the last time over her state capital in Columbia. With it died one of the greatest lies our nation has ever told itself. 155 years and 184 days ago, this great lie was told to our good Southern men and women. Since then it has been told by them when challenged to explain how, when 55% of African Americans in our country live in the region that once seceded to prevent their freedom, the very symbol of that secession can be a true and just symbol of their culture. It was a lie of dire consequences. Now that it may finally be over, it’s time we talked about it.
1.2 million men of all classes and vocations joined the Confederate Army between 1860 and 1865. Over 400 thousand of them would die for that cause. That’s more Americans than died in both World Wars combined. What History has shown us, however, is that people require more than hatred to surrender their lives. They need more than racist ideology. They need a cause. They need to believe, in their very souls, that the alternative to surrendering their lives is a life not worth living. They need a reality to avoid at any cost. Hitler understood it. He knew his twisted views of a master race needed to be kept hidden from the masses, instead choosing to ignite the flame of German nationalism in a downtrodden people who lost so much in the aftermath of WWI. Unlike our Southern brothers and sisters though, the Germans were quick to realize they were duped. No Nazi flags fly over German state facilities, or anywhere for that matter; not for 70 years.
What exactly was the lie? It’s a simple one with common motivation. At the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, 3.9 million slaves fueled the great agricultural industry of the South. One out of every eight people living in America was a slave, working on Southern agriculture. Let’s put that in perspective. In 2014, the average annual income for an agricultural laborer in the state of Iowa was $32,000. That means that if one out of every eight Americans today were actually unpaid property, our economy would be in the hole 1.28 trillion dollars if over night, we were forced to account for it. That’s slightly larger than the entire U.S. financial market, twice the U.S. defense budget and four times the global pharmaceuticals market. The consequences of having to make up for that sort of capital, over night, would have been a thorough and complete annihilation of the Southern economy; for some, an outcome to avoid at any cost. And so for the ruling class of Southern landowner, that all important threshold was crossed. The life they were about to live, one without the material wealth they had become accustomed to, was not worth living. They were willing to sacrifice all to save a society entirely enabled by slavery. For the common man however, there needed to be another message. It’s hard to risk your neck for another man’s treasure after all. Enter the great lie. An 1863 recruiting letter from the Quarter-Master of the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederate Army shows how well it was spread.
“do this (serve) and we will remain free; decline and we will be subjugated, our property wrested from us and our country lost.”
It’s this kind of talk that gets men who have little to lose to begin with to risk all that they may ever have to preserve the chance that they may ever have it. So this lie lived on even after the great defeat, perhaps because it was such a tragic outcome. The destruction of an economy for generations and the loss of so many lives makes fertile ground for denial to take hold. Maybe for other reasons we can’t sum up in 800 words this terrible lie lived on for 155 years and 128 days. But now the lie that a flag born out of such destructive motives could be a symbol for a great American culture, may be dead.
Judge not our Southern brothers and sisters too harshly though. With the luxury of centuries of American exceptionalism behind us, many of us still fall victim to the same type of self deception. Today we still believe many things that don’t and won’t hold up to the cold light of reality or the unforgiving lens of history. We believe things like the 2nd Amendment was written because our founding father’s wanted us to have guns. We believe that providing health care is government encroachment. We believe that criticizing social welfare programs that don’t work is elitist or even racist. We believe a lot of things that 150 years from now people will struggle to understand. This is one of many lessons hidden in the tragedy of Charleston. So let’s take the time to think about why we believe the things that we believe, and maybe, especially if they are the types of things that exclude people from society or deny them things that provide them with a chance for prosperity or even put people in danger, it won’t take us 150 years to get them right.