Albert Einstein said racism is “a disease of white people.” Michael Brown. A Confederate memorial. Virtually segregated neighborhoods and schools. What do these mean to us? And by “us,” I mean white people. If racism is our disease, then surely its primary symptom is our inability to face the pain we cause.
In 1894, a black man, John Buckner, was arrested in Manchester. In Valley Park, a mob formed. Buckner was lynched from a railroad bridge over the Meramec River.
The Post-Dispatch recounted Buckner’s cries. “Ten feet of rope had been allowed for the drop, and the wretch’s last scream was choked off before it was fairly uttered.” There was a sadistic glee in the reporting. “After waiting five minutes the body was hauled up to see if life was extinct; a roll of the negro’s eyes showed that he still lived and it was lowered again. For a quarter of an hour it hung before the mob dispersed. … A verdict of suicide will be rendered if the citizens of Valley Park are put upon the Coroner’s jury.” A bridge on Woods Mill Road is in roughly the same location as the old bridge from which Buckner hung.
There is no memorial to John Buckner. The Confederate memorial in Forest Park was erected in 1914.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the National Memorial For Peace And Justice, says simply, “Slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved.” The abolition of slavery did nothing to end the ideas and conditions that made it possible. In the years after the Civil War, the belief in racial hierarchy justified racial terrorism and systemic exploitation.
“Slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved.” This cannot be said enough. As slavery has evolved, how has the damage, to the souls of white folks, evolved?
In August, while in Montgomery, Ala., my wife and I visited the National Memorial For Peace And Justice, the Legacy Museum, and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church from which that young martyr, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
We also visited The Confederate White House, the first executive mansion of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis lived there in 1861. He held Cabinet meetings there. There were formal balls.
I whispered to my wife, “It’s a Scarlett O’Hara Theme Park.” On display are gowns, frock coats, Confederate flags. It is the fantasy of The Lost Cause, the presumed virtues of the antebellum South. It views the Civil War as an honorable struggle to preserve those southern virtues. Such historiography operates as a form of intellectualization. It functions as a defense against all the pain white people cause. If there was any mention of slavery, we didn’t see it.
In the souvenir shop, they sell Confederate kepis. I couldn’t help but wonder where someone would wear such a thing.
I was also curious about the Southern Cross Of Honor on display. The Confederate government authorized medals for bravery, but never had a chance to award them. So, in 1899, the United Daughters Of The Confederacy created the Southern Cross Of Honor. The first such medal was awarded in 1900 to Alexander S. Erwin, who fought at Gettysburg. I wonder how folks would have felt if a Nazi would have been awarded a medal in 1980.
The question is worth repeating. As slavery has evolved, how has the damage, to the souls of white folks, evolved? Frederick Douglass spoke of how slavery corrupted Mrs. Auld, “a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman,” who suddenly found herself in possession of a slave, Douglass himself. “Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.”
When white folks fly a Confederate flag, ignore segregation, multi-generational poverty, the ghetto, inadequate education, unequal opportunity, the legacy of red-lining, when we justify mass incarceration, when we elect a racist president, how are we different from Mrs. Auld? And what is the damage to our souls?
As we left Montgomery, as we drove north on Highway 65, visible for miles was a Confederate battle flag as big as a billboard. Below it was an enormous sign — ALABAMA DIVISION SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS.
I again thought of that souvenir shop in the Confederate White House. They sold Confederate kepis. I wondered where someone would wear such things. I no longer wonder. Folks wear them right here. And I am not speaking of Alabama. I am speaking of here. The United States.
John Samuel Tieman of University City is an essayist, poet and a frequent contributor to the online magazine Vox Populi. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.