The Real Reason Southern Politicians Are So Adamant About Passing Anti-Woke Legislation
Most liberals and progressives believe that the anti-woke legislation being passed in places like Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and a number of other mostly Southern states is an attack, as Roy Wood, Jr. said during his White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, “on Black history and an attempt to erase the contributions of Black people.” That’s true, but it’s more than that: it’s about preventing new generations of students from learning the truth about Black history, the Civil War, slavery, reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era.
“History is written by the victors” is an oft-repeated phrase attributed to Winston Churchill, but in the case of the Confederacy, it’s not true. A friend recently suggested I read Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause by Ty Seidule, and it was an unsettling reminder of the history I was taught in Arkansas, and that most Southerners were taught. I’m not talking about the history lessons imparted during the 1950s or even the 1970s. I’m talking about the history taught during the years in which Nirvana, Tool, and Bush were popular.
This is what we were taught: The Civil War was not about slavery, it was about states’ rights (never mind that what “states’ rights” meant was the right of a state to permit slavery). We didn’t call it the “Civil War.” We called it the War between the States. We were taught the Confederacy fought the Civil War to maintain a certain way of life. We were David taking on Goliath, a Yankee army with more men, more resources, and more money, and thanks to the hero Robert E. Lee, we almost won that war. Never mind that the genuine military skill of Robert E. Lee, a slave owner himself, only prolonged the war, resulting in tens of thousands more deaths and the complete devastation of Southern infrastructure. While many of us were taught that General Lee was actually against slavery, the reality is that he fought as hard as he did because, in his own words, he feared that freed slaves would rape white women like white men had for so long raped slaves.
We were taught that most slave owners were good people and that most slaves did not mind being enslaved, that white people gave them a job and a place to live. We were taught that some slaves fought on the side of the Confederacy (not true), that many slaves gladly stayed behind and continued working for their slave owners even after they were freed (also not true). We knew the lyrics to “Dixie” as well as we knew the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was not the “Confederate flag,” it was the “Rebel flag,” because the South stood up to the man. We were beloved lawbreakers, like the cousins in The Dukes of Hazzard. I remember specifically being tested on the definitions of “carpetbaggers” — an appalling Yankee who moved South during Reconstruction to exploit our land — and “scalawags,” Southerners who betrayed the Confederacy by allying with the North. Both words were commonly used as pejoratives.
Again, these were not the scattered beliefs of deranged conspiracy theorists. These were the lessons we were taught in public schools by teachers who were respected and admired, using textbooks we had no reason to question. Yes, we were also taught to admire Abraham Lincoln, but he was placed on the same pedestal as General Lee and Jefferson Davis. Abolitionists had been vilified for so long in our textbooks that I don’t even think I realized until I watched Ethan Hawke’s The Good Lord Bird that the raid on Harper’s Ferry was a good thing.
Yes, our classrooms also had Black students. They were taught the same lessons, and as far as we knew, believed them to be true. Gone with the Wind was also a hugely popular movie and book — second in sales only to the Bible — and we were led to believe that the accounts in Margaret Mitchell’s novel were based in reality—Mitchell herself said the history in the novel was accurate, that the Confederate cause was just, that the army went to war to protect the land, and to protect the Southern way of life from Yankee invaders. Gone with the Wind laundered the Lost Cause Myth.
I don’t know what the curriculum in high schools in the South today is, but I know that the men and women of my generation and older are, by and large, responsible for passing legislation in the South. They don’t want history from the Black perspective being taught in schools because it upsets their way of thinking, because it demolishes the romantic ideals they have about the South and the Confederacy. They are afraid that high schoolers in the South will learn the truth: The only reason the South seceded from the Union was to protect slavery.
The South may have lost that war, but 160 years later, Southern politicians are still trying to hide the reasons for it and convince themselves—and younger generations—that the Confederate cause was just and romantic. What’s at stake with this anti-woke legislation is nothing more than protecting the Lost Cause myth so that white Southerners never have to truly come to terms with our own history.
This article was originally publishedhere.