John Kelly’s Jim Crow Version of the Civil War

When John Kelly refused to use Rep. Frederica Wilson’s name during his press conference and instead, referred to her as an “empty barrel,” he was accused of racism. I decided to stay out of that discussion because I’ve been there before and know how that one ends.

But the truth is, it represents the most pernicious form of racism that a lot of people of color face today. I say pernicious because there is no way to prove that these kinds of attacks are motivated by racism. For example, was Rep. Joe Wilson motivated by racism when he broke with protocol to shout “You lie” at the first African American president during his speech to a joint session of congress? More recently, Fox News is attempting to smear the judge that Manafort and Gates appeared before yesterday—who just so happens to be an African American woman. Is that racist? You tell me.

However, during his interview last night with Laura Ingraham, Kelly made statements that prove he is steeped in the white supremacist view of this country’s history.

Kelly’s statement that there were “men and women of good faith on both sides” of the Civil War echoed similar arguments Trump made when people protested against neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville. He prefaced those remarks by saying “history is history.” And yet the story he tells about Robert E. Lee and the Civil War is nothing more than the revanchist history of the post-Reconstruction era. It confirmed exactly why there is a need to have a discussion about the statues all over this country that were erected to promote those lies.

If you need a refresher course on all of that, I suggest that you read the tweet storm by Ta-Nehisi Coates that was sparked by those remarks, or the summary of what Philip Bump heard about them from three historians.

“That statement could have been given by [former Confederate general] Jubal Early in 1880,” said Stephanie McCurry, professor of history at Columbia University and author of “Confederate Reckoning: Politics and Power in the Civil War South.”

“What’s so strange about this statement is how closely it tracks or resembles the view of the Civil War that the South had finally got the nation to embrace by the early 20th century,” she said. “It’s the Jim Crow version of the causes of the Civil War. I mean, it tracks all of the major talking points of this pro-Confederate view of the Civil War.”

The history that needs to be noted here is how this “Lost Cause” mentality was created and spread to the point that someone like John Kelly is still buying it 150 years later. That is all the proof we need that the racist divide is still firmly embedded in our country today.

In the end, these last couple of weeks have further enlightened us all about the reason John Kelly was chosen by Trump to be his DHS Secretary and then promoted to be his chief of staff. As Josh Marshall wrote, he represents “Trumpist ideology in a more disciplined, duty-focused, professional package.” But racism dressed up in a more professional package is still racism. That probably has something to do with why Kelly refuses to apologize to Rep. Frederica Wilson.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.