It’s Time To Look Away, Dixieland

via It’s Time To Look Away, Dixieland.

SUN JUN 28, 2015


As a born and bred Southerner (7th generation Alabama native), I’m told I come with a ready-made set of assumptions when I mention that fact to someone from another part of the country. Well, when you “assume” anything, you make an “ass” out of yourself surely, but leave me out of that equation. I waited over a week to write anything about the Charleston shootings because it was just too horrible to talk about – walking into a church, gaining peoples’ trust, praying with them… And then gunning them down seemingly without remorse.

But here goes…..  I was born in North Alabama in 1963, a few hours before a bomb planted by domestic terrorists blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. There were no TVs in hospitals rooms then, but when my mother woke from anesthesia, the first thing she heard was about the bombing. As she held her newborn daughter, five families a hundred miles to the south were mourning the loss of their daughters.

Diane McWhorter, author of “Carry Me Home”, a history of the MLK and the Civil Rights struggle in Birmingham, recounts how that bombing changed her family. Her father, up until that point had been a segregationist, although not a KKK-type. But the bombing “broke him,” she says.  (I’d include the exact quote, but I loaned my copy to a friend who hasn’t returned it). He sat at the table and wept, horrified by what had happened and his dawning realization that his city had gotten to the point that people thought it was ok to kill little girls in church on a Sunday morning.

Sure: that should have been obvious to anyone watching the events unfold before that point, but at least he finally opened his eyes and acknowledged the rot underlying the whole Southern narrative history.

Honor, Heritage, History…. In the South, we’re full of it.  Literally (in all senses of the phrase).  Author Rita Mae Brown writes novels set in the South, and said of one character “…because she was raised in the South, she understood honor. And Fannie died with honor.”

But do we really understand “honor” when we honor the Old Confederacy? NO.

Spare me the crap about “States’ Rights.” The Civil War was about states’ rights alright, but if you’re going to say that, you have to use the entire sentence.  Repeat after me:


Truly, when you say “the war wasn’t about slavery,” what the rest of us hear is “I’ve joined the military history branch of the Flat Earth Society.”

In “Gone With The Wind,” Rhett Butler tells Scarlett that all wars are “money squabbles,” even though the rhetoric around each one is different. Sometimes it’s “Down with Popery” or “Save Christ’s tomb from the heathens!” or “Cotton, Slavery, and State’s Rights!” but the reality is… They’re all about money.

“All wars are sacred to those who have to fight them. If the people who started wars didn’t make them sacred, who would be foolish enough to fight? But, no matter what rallying cries the orators give to the idiots who fight, no matter what noble purposes they assign to wars, there is never but one reason for a war. And that is money. All wars are in reality money squabbles. But so few people ever realize it.”

The poor whites didn’t own slaves, but they either joined up or got conscripted to serve as foot soldiers for their corporate masters – the planter class that had a lot of money riding on a slavery-based economy. But not everybody was snowed. Many poor Southerners called the conflict “a rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.”  You have to wonder how many ardent defenders of the noble history of the Confederacy had ancestors who were more clear-eyed than their descendants.

This whole narrative of “most Southerners didn’t even own slaves; they were defending their homeland from invasion, and I honor their sacrifice with the flag etc.” is BS. What’s noble or honorable about having ancestors who got played? Why aren’t you pissed instead?

Here’s the unsanitized, unsentimentalized story of the war: a small group of wealthy farmers – a self-described aristocracy – sweet-talked the rest of the South into starting a war, leading to an absolute disaster that killed over 600,000 Americans, decimated the South’s economy, and led to an entrenched Jim Crow system that terrorized Black Americans for generations.

And yet, the clarion call of “racial superiority” trumped everything then – and now.

Republican Dark Lord, master strategist, and South Carolina native Lee Atwater (whorecanted his sins way too late to do anything about them) knew that the path to political power in the South hadn’t changed much in a hundred years.

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Without even realizing it (or maybe he did; he was from South Carolina, after all), Atwater was parroting Rhett Butler: all wars, even the economic war in this country (the one we don’t like to talk about), are money squabbles.

In 1865, the South lost to the United States. In 2015, the American Middle Class is losing to the oligarchy that’s buying and selling our political system. And the people pulling the strings 150 years ago had the same motivations as the Koch Brothers, hedge fund managers, wealthy casino owners, etc. do now: MONEY.

If they can keep us fighting each other for the crumbs, suspicious of anyone who looks different, angry that our job sucks, that we can’t afford to send our kids to college, and the system seems rigged against us – and convince us that it’s the fault of the Blacks, the gays, the immigrants… Then we won’t look past the bright shiny objects and realize the truth.

The last thing these guys want is for working class white voters to join up with communities of color. No, it’s much more productive to convince young men like Dylann Roof that all his problems are due to minorities and Jews (who, he said he considered to be “White” but they “act like minorities”).  Writer Milton Himmelfarb had much the same observation, that Jews “earn like Episcopalians, but vote like Puerto Ricans.”

So many Jews traveled to the South in the early days of the civil rights movement not because they themselves were being lynched or restricted from lunch counters, but because Jews knew about restriction, prejudice and the calumny of the poisoned well, the blood libels of Easter massacres. When the second or third generation of Jews learned that America had accepted them but rejected others they understood in their deepest selves the insult and the pain it brings. It was an old insult echoing the pogroms, yellow stars, dunce hats of another place, and as old as the Vienna ghetto and as recent as the “No Jews Need Apply” sign on the factory door, or the “No Jews ” sign on the hotel lawn.

Had Roof gotten way with his first murders, a synagogue could have been next.

Too many racists, young and old, believe that their problems stem from some sort of institutionalized bias against white guys. We’re all used to the whining of the “angry white men” who feel that they’re victims of discrimination and can’t get ahead because of minorities. They’re blaming fellow victims instead of the powerful corporate and monied interests who are pulling the strings. Ironically, the vast majority of those are rich white men who are playing their brothers like cheap ukeleles.

Can’t get a decent job? Well, it can’t possibly be because of globalization and a minimum wage that is way to low for full time workers to make a decent living. It must be because “quotas” are giving all the jobs to minorities. Terrified about retirement because you can’t save any money? Oh, forget how unions have been decimated, pension funds looted by corporate raiders, and retirement fund management handed over to Wall Street. No, young man… It’s because of Welfare Queens.

If they can keep us fighting each other, they know we won’t band together to demand economic reforms.

The latest bright shiny object is, IMO, the Confederate flag on state property. Yes, it’s offensive. Yes, it’s stupid. Yes, it’s divisive. And yes, it needs to go. But it’s a symptom, not the actual disease and if we focus on that alone in the wake of the Charleston shootings, we’re losing a tremendous opportunity for change.

For the past week, I’ve been sympathetic and pleased, but also vaguely dissatisfied with the momentum building to remove Confederate symbols from state property and state-issued license plates. I mean, yeah, it’s long past time to do so, but we can’t let that be our only response. Too many people are looking at the symbols and not demanding real systemic change.

It’s easy to sign an Internet petition, but did you get out and vote in the mid-terms?  Did you give your legislators hell for not expanding Medicaid or raising the minimum wage?  Those matter a heck of a lot more in everyday life than the flag. If we’re only concerned about the flag, we’re letting our elected officials off way too easy.

It wasn’t until I heard Reverend William Barber (North Carolina’s Moral Monday leader) on NPR that all this crystallized for me. The Charleston shootings were a tragedy, but also an opportunity. Other killings that shocked the nation led to landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. Aren’t we selling those nine lives short if the only thing we ask in return now is taking a flag down?

Reverend Barber, not surprisingly, said it much better than I can

Reverend Pinckney, as a colleague in ministry, was not just opposed to the flag, he was opposed to the denial of Medicaid expansion, where now the majority of the state is opposing Medicaid expansion where six out of 10 black people live. He was opposed to voter suppression, voter ID in South Carolina. He was opposed to those who have celebrated the ending of the Voting Rights Act, or the gutting of Section 4, which means South Carolina is no longer a preclearance state, and the very district that he served in is vulnerable right now. He was opposed to the lack of funding for public education. He wanted to see living wages raised.

So I would say to my colleagues, let’s take down the flag—to the governor—but also, let’s put together an omnibus bill in the name of the nine martyrs. And all of the things Reverend Pinckney was standing for, if we say we love him and his colleagues, let’s put all of those things in a one big omnibus bill and pass that and bring it to the funeral on Friday or Saturday, saying we will expand Medicaid to help not only black people, but poor white Southerners in South Carolina, because it’s not just the flag.


Lee Atwater talked about the Southern strategy, where policy was used as a way to divide us. And if we want harmony, we have to talk about racism, not just in terms of symbol, but in the substance of policies. The flag went up to fight policies. If we’re going to bring it down, we’re also going to have to change policies, and particularly policies that create disparate impact on black, brown and poor white people.

Let’s get back to “honor,” both the noun and verb form of the word. If we really care about memorializing and honoring the sacrifice of these people, we’ll act with honor.  We’ll honor the principles and promise of our nation’s (the United States!) founding documents when we protect voting rights, ballot access, and fight for equality in the workplace and in our society.

It’s time for working class and middle class white people to step up and put down their prejudices. The political system and economic system deck is stacked against us just as much as it is our neighbors who are black, brown, yellow, or any mixture you can think of. Remember Benjamin Franklin: “If we don’t hang together, we’ll most assuredly all hang separately.”

In the 8th grade, Mrs. Lane, my English teacher, made us all learn poems to recite by heart.  I’ve never forgotten one of them: “America For Me.” In many ways, it’s a jingoistic paean to American Exceptionalism, but there are worse goals than this:

The glory of the present is to make our future free.
We love our land for what it is and what it is to be.
Oh, it’s home again, and home again, America for me!

I want a ship that’s westward bound to plough the rolling sea,
To the bléssed Land of Room Enough beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars

We don’t have any control over what this country was… But we are responsible for “what it is to be.” What future will we choose?

Let’s “look away” from the mythical land of Dixe and start building a more humane and prosperous future for everyone in the United States of America.


3 responses to “It’s Time To Look Away, Dixieland

    • It’s always with some trepidation I approach comments on this and related posts, never knowing what I’ll find. Not everyone is as sympathetic as you. Thank you for your encouragement.