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The Charleston Murders: The Final Battle in the Civil War?

It was a brutal murder of nine people in an AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The victims, including their pastor, who was also a member of the South Carolina State Senate, were gunned down by a racist killer who wrapped himself in the symbols and rhetoric of the Confederacy. This was not America’s first gun-related mass-murder, but this one turned out to be dramatically different in one significant detail. On the next day, the heart-broken African-American mourners confronted the murderer of their loved ones. Their words to him were not of anger, blame or even revenge, but only of forgiveness. That act, so beyond expectations, opened the reservoirs of racial emotions, held for so long just beneath the surface of this nation’s political life. As a result racism visibly began to die. Within days politicians across the South moved to take down the Confederate flags. The call to take this step in South Carolina was led by two unlikely Republican legislators. One was State Senator Paul Thurmond, the son of Senator Strom Thurmond, arguably America’s most noted voice of our racist past; the other was Republican State Representative Jenny Horne, a direct descendant of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. The vote in both Houses of the South Carolina Legislature was overwhelming, suggesting that racism, implanted so deeply and for so long in the American character, was at last dying. People have always had a hard time accepting the fact that racism was motivating them. This sickness seems best dealt with by denial or by perfuming it with pious words. Let me take a moment to identify its continuing presence in our national life.

Race was the elephant in the room when Black People were counted, without embarrassment or shame, as “3/5 of a human being” in our Constitution. Race dominated the admission of new states into the Union in the 19th century, so that the balance of power would never tilt against slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation issued in the midst of the Civil War, served to harden the lines of resistance. When the Confederate forces were finally defeated in 1865, Southern resistance did not end, it just went underground. Hooded Ku Klux Klansmen became the successors to the Army of Northern Virginia. Lynching, economic oppression and political powerlessness became racism’s tools, and black subjugation became racism’s goal.

In 1876 the electoral votes from three Southern States were in dispute in the presidential contest. New York’s Democratic Governor Samuel Tilden, held a 300,000 popular vote lead over Ohio’s Republican Governor Rutherford Hayes, but he was one vote shy of victory in the Electoral College. The white South saw its chance to act and the latent racism in the rest of the nation created the willingness to co-operate. The South proposed to deliver all of its disputed electoral votes to Hayes and thus the presidency. In return the Republican nominee agreed to remove the occupying Union Forces and to look the other way while segregation was installed in the South as “the law of the land.” The deal was done. Segregation was then enforced in the South by the aggressive use of intimidation for which the Confederate flag was the symbol. An overwhelmingly white voting constituency would then send white supremacists to the Congress and Senate of the United States. There, through the use of seniority and the filibuster, they would dominate American politics and protect the “Southern way of life.” The South then gave its electoral votes to the Democratic national ticket to keep the party of Lincoln at bay. It was a cozy relationship. The Democratic Party was made up of four divergent blocks: the white South, the big city bosses, the labor unions and the internationalists. The Republican Party tended to be made up of the leaders of business, the rural and conservative heartland of America and the isolationists. The tension between these two parties dominated every national election. The Democratic Party achieved power in the election of 1912, because a Third Party movement headed by the previous Republican president Theodore Roosevelt split their party. The winning Democrat was an academic, the Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, but he was also a native of Virginia, an internationalist, and one who was comfortable with “racial” politics. When the Senate refused to enter the League of Nations after World War I, he was defeated. Isolationism, business-oriented politics and keeping racial oppression in place then elected Republicans Harding, Coolidge and Hoover to the White House in the 1920’s.

The worldwide economic depression put an end to that string of victories and placed New York’s Democratic Governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, into the White House in the election of 1932. He followed the pattern of the past by naming a Southerner, John Nance Garner from Texas, as his vice president. He was to win four terms. In 1940 the clouds of war overcame the traditional pattern and liberal Henry Wallace became the new vice president. In 1944, however, the war was not sufficient to suppress the angry Southern Democrats, who managed to force Wallace off the ticket, replacing him with a “border state” senator, Missouri’s Harry Truman.

That war also destabilized the racial patterns of the past. Black veterans returned from combat no longer content to accept powerlessness and oppression. Before and after that war Southern farms began to be mechanized. Black tenant farmers became redundant. A massive migration of these black, disenfranchised farm workers moved into America’s great cities in search of jobs. The core of America’s cities became black, but here these black citizens began to exercise their political power and to put pressure on the entire political system.

At the Democratic Nominating Convention of 1948 the young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, responding to these urban voters, mounted a campaign to place a civil rights plank into the Democratic Party’s platform. He succeeded. Southern Democrats, led by Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, walked out, formed a new party known as “the Dixiecrats,” which then nominated Strom Thurmond and Fielding L. Wright of Mississippi for President and Vice President. They would carry the electoral votes of four southern states. The alliance of convenience between the white South and the rest of the Democratic Party began to shatter. President Truman also lost the left wing of his party that year as former vice president Henry Wallace was nominated as the candidate of the newly formed Progressive Party. With no further need to “court” the southern vote, President Truman, by executive order, desegregated the Armed Forces. He then went on to win re-election in a stunning victory.

In 1952 the Republicans recaptured the White House with General Dwight Eisenhower of World War II fame at the head of their ticket. In his first term the Supreme Court ordered the end of segregation in schools by a 9-0 majority. The quest for racial equality had begun. In 1960 Senator Jack Kennedy of Massachusetts revived momentarily the old Democratic coalition by placing Southern Senator Lynden Johnson of Texas on his ticket as Vice President. The assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 then thrust this Southerner into the White House. So it was at the hand of a Southern Senator, a traditional segregationist known as LBJ, that the Civil Rights bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed into law.

The white South felt beleaguered and betrayed. Fear of black political power was rampant so various laws designed to discourage black voting were passed. Legislative redistricting lines were wildly gerrymandered to create black districts. Give the blacks a few individual congressmen, but keep solid white majorities in all the other districts was the plan. Appealing to disaffected white voters, the Republican Party turned the South into a solidly Republican block, by running the “southern strategy.” Goldwater tried it in 1964, but lost. Richard Nixon, however, ran it brilliantly to victory in 1968 and 1972. It looked as if the nation was headed for a long and continuous Republican majority based on racial politics. Code language was developed. “States’ Rights” meant the Federal Government must not tell the people how to treat black people. “Strict constructionist judges” meant judges who would look the other way and not force the nation to deal with its racial prejudices.

In 2008, helped by an economic recession that brought the ghost of the 1930’s depression back into our minds, this nation elected its first African-American President. His vice president was a committed liberal from Delaware. The white majority was stunned and racial politics became “hard ball” as it faced its own demise. President Obama was not legitimate, voices proclaimed. He was born in Kenya. He is a Muslim. He is not “one of us.” We will keep him from accomplishing anything. We will wipe his presence from our history by not allowing him to create a legacy. That was the stated agenda of many. Racial profiling became obvious. “Stand your ground” gun laws were passed. The murder of black males by white police officers or white vigilantes became a regular feature of our national life. No one was indicted. Riots, demonstrations and marches inevitably followed. It looked as if a race war might break out. The political charges became more and more shrill. Then the murders of nine people in a church in Charleston occurred. The perpetrator had a racist agenda. The nation braced itself for one more racial confrontation. It did not happen, but grace did. These black Christians through their tears extended their forgiveness to the killer of their family members. Our African-American President spoke at the funeral and led in the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace.” They were not just words. This nation had seen “Grace” operating. It was as if the boil of racism had finally been lanced and its poison flowed out of perpetrator and victim alike. The battle flags of the Confederacy began to come down across the South. Perhaps at last, some one hundred and fifty years after Lee’s surrender to Grant on the fields of Appomattox, the final shot of the Civil War had been fired. We pray that it is so. Now our task is to live our dream to be “one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

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