Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Memory and Memorial Day

Last year, Yale historian David Blight published a moving essay on the birth of Memorial Day at the end of the Civil War. It's worth reading again on the anniversary of the first Memorial Day celebration, held on May 1, 1865. Holidays are supposed to be times to remember. But, as the history of Memorial Day suggests, they are just as often times to forget. The following, based on Blight's retelling, shows just what is at stake when remembering and forgetting.

The first Memorial Day celebration took place in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. The city that started the Civil War with the firing on Fort Sumter lay in ruins at the end of the conflict. In the last year of the war, Confederate soldiers had turned the city's race track into a makeshift prison for Union soldiers. Where previously rich white planters had gathered in a conspicuous display of the wealth extracted from the labor of exploited slaves, there stood another symbol of the Confederacy. In the year of its operation, more than 250 northern soldiers died of illnesses related to exposure, malnutrition, and starvation. The Southern surrender at Appomattox in early April of 1865 left the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club empty except for a hastily constructed mass-grave dug by retreating Confederates.

Union Cemetery at Washington Race Course
After news of the surrender spread, some 28 black workmen, mostly former slaves living in Charleston, took it upon themselves to re-bury the Union dead. They built a proper cemetery. Lined it with a whitewashed picket fence. And on the archway over the entrance wrote the words "Martyrs of the Race Course." Then on May 1, 1865, black Charlestonians, along with white missionaries, soldiers, and aid workers held a memorial celebration on the grounds of the slaveholders' former race course.

Over 10,000 people marched that day. The parade was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren: boys and girls who had previously been kept by law from learning to read and write were the corporeal embodiment of the promise of a new south. They were followed by women bearing flowers, wreaths, and crosses to honor the dead. Black men, civilians marching en masse and in orderly martial cadence were next. Finally, federal troops, both black and white -- soldiers in the great war to end slavery -- marched onto the field. All of them understood the powerful symbolism of a celebration by former slaves to honor soldiers of the war to end bondage, held at a the very site of slave aristocracy's power, a southern pleasure ground-turned Confederate prison. To the participants that day, according to Blight, the ceremony was an the Independence Day celebration for the Second American Revolution. What's the Second American Revolution? How about, in Walter Johnson's words, the largest successful slave rebellion the world has ever known.

Eventually, both Northerners and Southerners would hold memorial day celebrations in the spring time, when the flowers to commemorate the fallen soldiers were as abundant as veterans' graves. And the meaning -- of both memorial day and the war itself -- would be lost to the nation's collective amnesia that set in over race and slavery. Southerners claimed the day to honor the valiant manhood of fallen Confederates. Northerners would drop the racial meaning of the war in favor of the whitewashed Southern version of a "tragic-but-honorable" conflict. And black Americans, both North and South, their contribution to the war, and to memorial day, would be scrubbed from the history for generations.

Hampton Park (formerly Washington Race Course)
The Charleston race track is all but gone except for an oval-shaped path in a large public park in a tony section of Charleston. In a symbolic act of reclamation, the park is now called Hampton Park, named for former confederate general Wade Hampton. Hampton became a white supremacist politician who won the bloody 1876 gubernatorial election with the help of a home-grown South Carolina terrorist organization known as the Red Shirts, whose brand of political violence looked much like another southern terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan. His victory marked the end of "Reconstruction," the North's the ten-year attempt to bring racial justice to the former slave states. 1876 also marked the beginning of a New South shaped in the distorted and twisted image of the old, racial segregation upheld by violent lynching, and a return to the pre-war order of white over black. In many ways Hampton's election, and others like it across the south in 1876, closed a door for years to come on the liberation promised by the war.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Santorum and Statehood: Curious Constitutional Principles

Rick Santorum recently demonstrated both his casual racism and his constitutional ineptitude this week weighing in on the subject of Puerto Rican statehood, claiming that “English must be the main language” before the territory could achieve statehood. His remarks, backpedalling notwithstanding, are telling. This election cycle’s iteration of conservatives can’t get enough of the constitution, the founding fathers, and their original intent. Tea Party republicans, who Santorum is trying to court as the only “true conservative,” continually invoke the founders (as if they were of one mind), while the House of Representatives read the Constitution aloud last year (minus all those passages that dealt with slavery). But how is it that a man who claims such fealty to all things founding can be so very, VERY, wrong?

I suppose we should give Santorum a bit of leeway here. The constitution and the founders are not the same thing (though to hear these guys talk about it you wouldn’t know). But, given the radical right’s love affair with the founding fathers, we can certainly understand the discriminatory and imperialistic undertone of Santorum’s remarks. Indeed, he would be right at home with, say, someone like Benjamin Franklin. He felt the same way … about the Germans

Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. 

Why was Franklin so nervous about the obviously-not-white Germans? In the next paragraph he continues:

the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. 

So, it’s obvious. Let the Germans run roughshod over Pennsylvania and we run the risk of ruining the white race, in general. Now, to us in the twenty-first century the notion that Germans are somehow not white seems absurd, but what shouldn’t be absurd is the American quest for racial purity. I don’t think it’s going to far to say that that quest is part of our political DNA, built into the system of laws that held up the institution of slavery and then Jim Crow segregation which followed. This quest for racial purity dominated the first 200 years of American constitutional law. It’s a legacy that the nation is now trying in good conscience to undo. Well, the nation except Rick Santorum. 

Ironically, that quest for purity is not explicitly built into American expansion. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (one of the only laws written during the Articles of Confederation to have lasting importance after the adoption of the federal constitution) established the precedence for the federal government acquiring territory beyond the original 13 colonies and the creation of new states from that territory. There were three stages of government for new territories, leading to statehood. First, Congress would appoint a governor, secretary and three judges. Once the territory had at least 5,000 inhabitants, those residents could elect a territorial assembly and send one non-voting member to congress. Finally, with 60,000, the residents could petition Congress for statehood, draft a constitution, and then become a state. 

Simple, right? So what were the requirements for the state constitution? That “the constitution and government so to be formed, shall be republican, and in conformity to the principles contained in these articles; and, so far as it can be consistent with the general interest of the confederacy.” Also, for the Northwest territories, that there be freedom of religion, the right to a writ of habeas corpus, the benefit of trial by jury, and no slavery. This had founders written all over it. Well, Thomas Jefferson at least. 

No language requirement. At all. What’s more, there is still no federal law mandating an official language of the United States. How could Rick Santorum, former federal lawmaker and candidate to be the nation’s chief executive, not know this basic lesson in history and civics? How can someone who claims to know the original intent of the founders, and who is in Puerto Rico on a campaign stop not know the basic laws governing the entry of states into the union?

This is a frightening story on a number of levels. It’s frightening that Santorum lacks such a basic understanding of the constitution. It’s all the worse that he would fill that gap so quickly with racist pandering.