Please find below a guest blog post by writer Pete Durantine.
Could the nine African-Americans murdered in a South Carolina church on June 17, 2015, as well as the man who murdered them with a handgun, perhaps be the last casualties of the Civil War?
Although the guns went silent in 1865 when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Va., the ideology on which the South had fought – slavery, racism, white supremacy – still burns as strong as a church candle.
Southerners with neither wealth nor power may have then, and may do so now, truly believe the Civil War was about states’ rights, but it wasn’t. That argument was a feint of the wealthy and powerful whose true goal was to preserve an economy driven by slavery and a belief that black-skinned people were inferior in every way to white people.
How else does a group like the Ku Klux Klan thrive without the implicit support, tacit or otherwise, from individuals and institutions? Concern over state’s rights just doesn’t stir the blood and emotion like hate does.
As a newspaper reporter in a small Southern Maryland town in the mid-1980s I heard the apathy of white people unwilling to consider how the Confederate stars and bars displayed in a county courthouse could offend African-Americans, and I felt a pinch from the Ku Klux Klan for daring to raise the question of why it is offensive.
“NAACP Asks Removal Of Courthouse Painting.” That May 1987 headline ran in the Times-Crescent in La Plata, the seat of Charles County, a then mostly rural area along the lower Potomac River. My story ran on the front page of the weekly newspaper. A young reporter at the time, I considered it a scoop, having been passing through the lobby of the courthouse where the painting, “Forward the Colors,” was displayed. The chair of the local NAACP, Salome Howard, just happened to be there that day, examining it and shaking her head. “I don’t think it’s representative of all the citizens in the county,” she told me. The painting depicted a group of Confederate soldiers marching with the Confederate flag, the stars and bars, the same one that flutters over South Carolina’s state capitol. “The only thing a Confederate flag means to me is slavery,” Howard told me. She planned to ask the county commissioners to remove the painting, but the commissioners told me she never did. As far as I know, the painting is still on display.
Donated to the county by the local Sons of the Confederate Veterans, the painting had underneath it a plaque that read, “In Memory of the Citizens of Charles County who served, within their means, the Confederate States of America.” When I called the head of the SOCV, Garth Bowling, to hear his views on the issue, he expressed disappointment with the NAACP and assured me that neither the organization nor the painting was meant to endorse slavery, that in fact the SOCV had “butted heads” with the KKK regarding the flag’s symbolism.
“We see it as a very honorable symbol of states’ rights,” Bowling said. “Racism has absolutely nothing to do with it.”
A month prior to the newspaper running my story about the Confederate painting, I covered a court case of two men found guilty of burning a cross in an African-American woman’s yard. “KKK” and epithets such as “kill nigger” had been spray painted on the road in front of the victim’s house, but there was no evidence the men were in the Klan. The state’s attorney dismissed questions about whether the cross burning was indicative of Klan activity in the county. The NAACP believed otherwise.
However, a week after my story about the courthouse painting appeared, a call came into the newspaper office from a man who would not give his name. He told one of the advertising sales ladies to inform me that there was “a gift” waiting for me by the painting. “He said he really liked your story,” the woman told me when I had returned to the office from an assignment. “He said you should go up there now and get it.” I left the newspaper office with plenty of suspicion and apprehension as I walked the two blocks to the courthouse.
On the wall by the painting was a sticker with a picture of a hooded Klansman and a warning: “The KKK is watching you.” No one in the courthouse had seen the person who placed it there. When the sheriff arrived at my request to investigate the matter, he used a pen knife to scrape the sticker off the wall. As he did, he told me that he doubted he would find the person responsible for defacing government property, “But I’ll ask around,” he said.
The matter ended there. County and state officials expressed some concern, but nothing more. I never received any more warnings.
The racist killings in South Carolina appear to be a turning point culturally and socially in our country. Local and state governments in the South might just stop displaying a symbol that represents slavery and white supremacy. If that becomes true, this country may finally begin to address the injustices of racial hatred and heal the wounds of a war fought 150 years ago.