Wars don’t end. Instead, they migrate to our minds. This especially might be said of the Civil War, as its legacy continues to haunt American life more than 150 years after its conclusion. The most recent national reckoning on race – spurred by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in 2020 – saw Confederate symbols come under renewed attack. Protesters drew a line connecting 19th century racial oppression to today’s forms of social injustice.
At the other end of the political spectrum are those still seeking to salvage something from the Confederacy. In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has once again proclaimed April “Confederate Heritage Month,” signing a bland statement that makes no mention of secession or slavery. Democrats in the state condemned the move as divisive.
In this episode of History As It Happens, historian James Oakes, an expert on American slavery and antebellum politics, said the Confederacy’s history has little positive to offer either White or Black Mississippians.
“In some ways, [neo-Confederate ideology] is a bizarre holdover. I hope this is not the sign of a revival,” said Mr. Oakes, the author of “Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South.”
Mississippi’s declaration of secession in 1861 made explicit the defense of slavery and the fundamental importance of subjugating Black people. During the war, tensions between poor, non-slaveholding yeoman farmers and elite, slaveholding planters hampered the Confederate war effort.
Moreover, the Confederate government, led by Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis, showed little regard for the rights of even its White population. “Conscription, draft exemptions for planters, the tax in kind, and Confederate impressment policies heightened class tensions between the ‘common whites’ of Mississippi and wealthier whites,” according to the online Mississippi Encyclopedia. None of these facts appears in Mr. Reeve’s declaration.
“That indicates, in a way, the bankruptcy of the concept of Confederate heritage, that [Reeves] can’t cite a single specific value or ideal that Confederate heritage supposedly represents,” Mr. Oakes said.
Listen to Mr. Oakes discuss the problems with Confederate Heritage Month by downloading this episode of History As It Happens.
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