Tera W. Hunter, Professor of History and African American Studies at Princeton, is the author of To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War.
Ex-slaves from Edisto Island, South Carolina, posed this question in a letter to President Andrew Johnson in the fall of 1865: “Have we broken any Law of these United States? Have we forfieted our rights of property In Land?”
Months after the end of the Civil War and emancipation from slavery, African Americans were still struggling to secure the most basic political and economic rights in the heart of the South. “Here is where secession was born and Nurtured Here is w[h]ere we have toiled nearly all Our lives as slaves and were treated like dumb Driven cattle, This is our home, we have made These lands what they are.”
The land makers’ claims to standing in the republic above the self-proclaimed land owners were articulated in response to Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation, issued one hundred and fifty years ago, May 29, 1865. Johnson’s clemency restored plantations to former Confederates who took an oath (exempting the major military commanders); a nearly scot-free gift to ostensibly vanquished foes. He reneged on the promise embodied in General William T. Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, to permit former slaves the right to buy the land of their ancestors. The land upon which their unrequited labor for centuries had made white Carolinians among the wealthiest people on the globe would revert to those who had thieved its fruits for their own profits and pleasures.
Since the end of the Civil War there has been a persistent tension between the desire of the nation to reconcile with disloyal white Southerners who took up arms against it and to advance the rights of its faithful black citizens who sacrificed their own blood to fight bravely on its side. The protracted fight over the Confederate battle flag and its tyrannical uses by latter day defenders is a reflection of that tension.
It started after gunshots and cannon balls had hardly quieted. Johnson began to pardon the treason of the insurrectionaries and allow them back into the good graces of the country they had taken up arms to destroy. African Americans were flummoxed by this unabashed betrayal and restitution: “are not our rights as A free people and good citizens of these United States To be considered before the rights of those who were Found in rebellion against this good and just Government[?]”
Johnson started returning the keys to the store to the enemy combatants prematurely, putting the lives of ex-slaves and their future prospects for freedom in danger of being relegated to their former status of chattel property all but in name. It was as though secession and rebellion had constituted minor infractions as opposed to one of the most insidious crimes outlined in the U. S. Constitution, punishable by the penalty of death upon conviction.
The letter writers, consisting of a committee, “in behalf of the freedmen,” pondered the irony of their situation. “We were the only true and Loyal people that were found in posession of these Lands. we have been always ready to strike for Liberty and humanity yea to fight if needs be To preserve this glorious union.” And yet despite their faithfulness and their decisive role in securing the Union victory they were told that their rights were less important than the ambitions of erstwhile Confederates.
Many whites across the nation were anxious to return to normalcy and were willing to advance truces that left newly enfranchised black people vulnerable. Leniency shown to former Confederates that permitted them to recapture monopoly over land and political power were especially troubling. Ex-slaves would be doomed to becoming a dependent peasantry at best without either of these essential resources. Johnson’s agenda was disrupted at the end of the year when Congressional Republicans were able to assert control over Reconstruction and oversee the transition from slavery to freedom in the former Confederacy. Congress passed a series of amendments to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, guaranteeing citizenship and due process, and enfranchising black male voters, to diminishing the risk of presidential veto and make these fundamental changes permanent.
Reconstruction, at all levels of government, constituted one of the most important achievements in American democracy. But it was too short lived. The federal government pulled back its troops in 1877, ending its presence with a compromise with the white South. The committee of South Carolinians who had written to Johnson had accurately depicted the backwards future they would face without the watchful eye and strong arm of sympathetic allies. When “home rule” was reasserted in the South, massive white violence and vigilante retaliations led to disfranchisement of black citizens by century’s
The unrepentant Confederacy has reared its hydra heads repeatedly in subsequent years, especially after mid-twentieth century civil rights advances. The flag is just its most flagrant outward display. A road too often taken until recently has been to turn away and say, “let the Southern states decide.” What kind of nation tolerates its public officials and institutions defending or flaunting emblems of treason against it? Personal declarations are another matter entirely and should be freely allowed, however depraved. But the defeated have long been given leeway to dictate the terms for surrendering its instruments of power, symbolic and real, especially when the meanings behind them are widely shared.
The white South seceded from the Union, formed the Confederate States of America to launch an independent slaveholding republic and precipitated the most violent war in our history. More people died from the Civil War than all other wars combined. A nation that continues to countenance allegiances that trumpet the legitimacy of this imperial scheme is malignant. A nation such as this is still ambivalent about what it values most and whose rights are most worthy of expression and protection. When the symbols of “our heritage,” “our pride,” and “our honor,” are allowed to take precedence, when they continue to be invoked to desecrate human life they permit domestic terror to be visited ad infinitum on those of us who are exculpated from the proverbial “us” and “we.”
In the wake of yet another massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, in which nine people lost their lives at the hands of a self-identified bigot flying under the banner, the leading state of the vanquished Confederacy has been forced to offer a simple gesture of reconciliation. The flag has been taken down from the grounds of the statehouse after decades of refusal.
But the truth should not be sacrificed in the undoing of this recalcitrance. The flag cannot be whitewashed of its sedition or its legacy as a calculated banner of white supremacy and racial violence even outside the South. Enraged white Northerners waved the flag in opposition to the civil rights movement. Neo-Nazi Germans have commandeered it for their cause even today because flying the Nazi flag is verboten in their country.
Monuments to Confederate leaders are mounted in the National Statuary Hall and images of the battle flag contained in state flags fly in the House complex, which indicate how much emblems of white nationalism have been tolerated even by the federal government. Congress is now in a standoff on whether to allow the flag to be displayed on some federal land, holding up critical negotiations on the budget process.
The surrender and demotion of the flag of infamy in all its various permutations on public edifices and paraphernalia should be put to rest permanently everywhere. The memory of those freed men and women who have been “always true” should not be defamed to favor the memory of those who committed high treason.