This is an op ed I wrote which was published in the Palo Alto Daily Journal on Saturday, June 19, 2021. Note that the published version may differ slightly from what’s here due to editing by the newspaper.
In a rare act of near unanimity Congress voted to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday and President Biden signed it into law.
This is belated recognition of an important event in American history. Imagine, for a moment, what those former slaves in Texas must’ve felt when the Union Army showed up and told them they were free. It’s easy to take something for granted if you’ve always had it. But like air to breath, you quickly feel the lack of freedom. In fact, it can kill you.
But there’s another reason I hope Juneteenth gets celebrated in the style it deserves.
Most Americans grow up accepting or believing the version of post-Civil War history portrayed in books and movies like Gone with the Wind. The Confederacy is painted in noble terms, a doomed effort to preserve something special against a domineering Federal Government.
There’s only one problem with that view. It’s complete and utter nonsense. The so-called Lost Cause was one of the only successful attempts I know of where the losers got to rewrite history. To hide what they’d done and award themselves a moral high ground they most definitely did not deserve.
The Confederacy was not created to protect states rights, or to keep the Federal Government from excessive interference in local affairs. It was created, purely and simply, to preserve the right of White people to own Black people. As the Mississippi Articles of Secession stated:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin1.”
A more callous disregard for the sanctity of human life would be hard to imagine. Like the infamous thirty pieces of silver, the right to make money from slavery was deemed far more important than the freedom of one’s fellow man.
It’s way past time for us recognize the evil many of our forefathers wrought. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the great good we’ve done elsewhere. But we need to stop fooling ourselves about the dark parts of our own past. How we will come to terms with it, and how we’ll redress the wrongs, will take hard work and sacrifice.
But there’s a simple thing each of us can do to get started which costs nothing. Let’s stop referring to “the Confederacy” or “the rebels”. Instead, call that community and its defenders what they truly were: the Slavers. Whatever their other motivations were, that name far more accurately conveys the real motivations of the people who sought to reject our Constitution to ensure they could continue treating Black people like animals.
Such a change would also serve as a useful reminder, to all of us, that we don’t have “Confederates” in our collective past. Instead, we have slavers…and we need to always remind ourselves both just how horrible that part of our history was, and just how critical it is we stay as far away from repeating it as we can.