Coda on confederacy controversy

CODA ON CONFEDERACY CONTROVERSY…. Newsweek editor Jon Meacham has an important op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, summarizing the larger significance of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s “Confederate History Month” proclamation.

If you’re just joining us, McDonnell reversed recent practice in Virginia with his declaration, but made matters worse by making no references to slavery. Adding insult to injury, the governor said he limited the scope of his declaration to the issues he thought “were most significant for Virginia” — a sentiment that seemed to suggest he considered slavery and its role in the Civil War to be unimportant.

Meacham explained that the Virginia governor “is working in a long and dispiriting tradition.”

Efforts to rehabilitate the Southern rebellion frequently come at moments of racial and social stress, and it is revealing that Virginia’s neo-Confederates are refighting the Civil War in 2010. Whitewashing the war is one way for the right — alienated, anxious and angry about the president, health care reform and all manner of threats, mostly imaginary — to express its unease with the Age of Obama, disguising hate as heritage.

If neo-Confederates are interested in history, let’s talk history. Since Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Confederate symbols have tended to be more about white resistance to black advances than about commemoration. In the 1880s and 1890s, after fighting Reconstruction with terrorism and after the Supreme Court struck down the 1875 Civil Rights Act, states began to legalize segregation. For white supremacists, iconography of the “Lost Cause” was central to their fight; Mississippi even grafted the Confederate battle emblem onto its state flag.

But after the Supreme Court allowed segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Jim Crow was basically secure. There was less need to rally the troops, and Confederate imagery became associated with the most extreme of the extreme: the Ku Klux Klan.

In the aftermath of World War II, however, the rebel flag and other Confederate symbolism resurfaced as the civil rights movement spread. In 1948, supporters of Strom Thurmond’s pro-segregation Dixiecrat ticket waved the battle flag at campaign stops.

Then came the school-integration rulings of the 1950s. Georgia changed its flag to include the battle emblem in 1956, and South Carolina hoisted the colors over its Capitol in 1962 as part of its centennial celebrations of the war.

Meacham concludes that American “cannot allow the story of the emancipation of a people and the expiation of America’s original sin to become fodder for conservative politicians playing to their right-wing base.” That’s good advice.