All that’s happened in the past week hasn’t changed the fact that Boston-born White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s remarks on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show reopened a divide in this country about slavery. I am reminded of the William Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Kelly, sounding like a diehard apologist, told the conservative television host that he views Confederate General Robert E. Lee as “an honorable man,” and that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”
To the surprise of many, myself included, Kelly’s remark eerily echoed Trump’s repugnant “blame on both sides” comment about the mayhem in Charlottesville. The false equivalence of Trump’s remark rendered the perpetrators as victims as well. And, by condemning counter-protesters similarly as white supremacists and swastika-wielding neo nazis, Trump suggested both groups were equally wrong.
Kelly’s remark is also a false equivalence. And in the most odious way, because it minimizes the moral turpitude of the Confederacy’s dogged and “by any means necessary” drive to make chattel slavery endure as a central pillar to their Southern way of life.
The moral relativism of Kelly’s statement suggests there’s no absolute truth, only the truths that a particular individual or culture upholds. But Kelly is wrong.
Slavery is America’s original sin. Many of our venerated founding fathers were wealthy slaveholders, part of a brutal history of debasing and dehumanizing Black people, whether through human trafficking, sexual exploration, or medical experimentation. It’s a history this country at best has not taken seriously and at worse isn’t accurately known.
In commemorating the start of Black History Month earlier this year, President Trump hosted a “listening session” at the White House that left listeners scratching their heads. Did he know that Frederick Douglass, a former slave, and abolitionist, died in 1895, and that 2018 will be the bicentennial of his birth? Expecting then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer to clarify what Trump meant regarding his comment about Douglass, the flack made it clear that he, too, didn’t quite know that Douglass is dead.
“I think he [Trump] wants to highlight the contributions [Douglass] has made,” Spicer said. “And I think through a lot of the actions and statements he’s going to make, I think that the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”
Kelly’s comment is straight-out of the Lost Cause Civil War propaganda machine. The Lost Cause movement following the end of Civil War romanticized the South’s loss, depicting its fallen Confederate soldiers as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry and honor, slavery as a benevolent form of charity, and the secession as a necessary evil in response to the North’s economic aggression. This image was cinematically promulgated in blockbuster hits like Birth of a Nation (1916), Gone With the Wind (1939), and Cold Mountain (2003), to name a few.
As for Kelly, he’s incorrect in stating that a lack of compromise resulted in the Civil War. As a matter of fact, the many concessions made had to do with enslaved Africans.
For example, the 1787 Three-Fifths Compromise declared my ancestors 3/5 of a person in Southern states in order to determine the total population of residents for legislative and tax purposes. Furthermore, the 1820 Missouri Compromise maintained the balance between slave and free states whereby Maine was admitted as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. In 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a compromise too. The document ceased the expansion of slavery but it didn’t free all slaves; rather, it imposed limits to its expansion stating there was “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists.”
If Kelly knew his Civil War history, he would know that General Lee was not a supporter of the Lost Cause mythology. When the war ended, Lee refused to be buried in his Confederate uniform and asked followers to put their flags away because displaying them as a form of defiance would be an act of treason. Robert E. Lee, V, the great-great-grandson, made a similar request about the statues. “If it can avoid any days like this past Saturday in Charlottesville, then take them down today,” he told the Washington Post in August.
White Americans must take ownership of their history to not only help along my healing from the wounds of Civil War, but theirs as well.
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.