Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Myth Behind What Happened in Charleston

First published in the Tampa Tribune on June 26, 2015 and then on the History News Network, June 28, 2015

In the days since the Charleston shooting, protests against the Confederate battle flag have gone viral.  Bringing down that flag is an important first step, but that action alone will not end the cultural conflict that has lasted for more than a century, a conflict that continues to wage a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of all Americans, especially those living in the South.
Known as the “Myth of the Lost Cause,” it is a collection of lies and half-truths that cloud our understanding of America History and help to perpetuate racial bigotry.  Its banner is the Confederate battle flag, its heroes are southern generals, its cause is the rewriting of history for the glorification of the Confederacy, and it often comes with a large dose of religious fundamentalism and a coating of regional boosterism.
The myth was born in the ashes of the Civil War, as southerners sought to justify the horrendous loses associated with the war, while unrepentant rebels fought to reestablish white supremacy in the region.  It was a time that saw the rise of terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and the disenfranchisement of African Americans through violence and intimidation. 
 As time passed, the tenets of the myth were codified by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group that seeks to preserve “a truthful history of the War Between the States.”  In 1904 the group published a catechism designed to teach southern children their version of history.  It offered an image of the antebellum South as a nearly perfect world, where slaves were treated as members of the family and white men lived under a code of honor akin to medieval chivalry.  It saw the leaders of southern secession not as rebels, but as patriots and denied that upholding slavery was a primary cause of the war.  The UDC claimed it was simply a war in which the South defended itself against the onslaught of northern aggression.   These ideas provided the dogma that shaped the beliefs by others groups in the South, including the Sons of the Confederacy.
The catechism was just the beginning.  The myth began to gain greater popularity through the writings of Thomas Dixon Jr., a Baptist minister from Shelby, North Carolina, remembered for novels about Reconstruction in the South – The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman, published in 1905.  Ironically, Shelby is the city where the Charleston shooter was captured. 
            Dixon’s work was used by film maker D.W. Griffith to create the nation’s first blockbuster motion picture, “Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and villianized African Americans.  “Birth of a Nation” was immensely popular.  It was the first movie shown in the White House.  Woodrow Wilson, an historian by training, said it was like seeing history written in lightening.  The movie led to a revitalization of the Klan, not just as a southern terrorist group but as a national organization of native-born Americans fearful of the enormous waves of immigrants coming to the United States  This new Klan railed against blacks, Jews, Catholics and anyone else who did not fit their image of a “true American.”  While the national Klan was destroyed by its own internal conflict in the 1920’s, it continues to linger in small splinter groups throughout the South. 
The myth was revitalized in the 1930’s with the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s novel “Gone With the Wind,” a book that was later made into another blockbuster motion picture.
            During the civil rights movement that emerged following World War II, the myth helped fuel the anger and violence of white southerners, particularly those at the lowest economic and educational levels.  It can be found in the rhetoric of Strom Thurmond, the 1948 Dixiecrat candidate for President, as well as the later Presidential campaigns of Alabama Gov. George Wallace.  
            Despite the distorted history, the inaccurate images and the barefaced lies, the Myth of the Lost Cause is still potent propaganda for those who refuse to accept change.  It pollutes our history and our culture, it poisons the minds of our citizens, it promotes terrorist acts and it prevents us from effectively confronting racism.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

What Cinco de Mayo is, and isn't

Originally published in the Tampa Bay Times, Tuesday, May 5, 2015

This may surprise many in the United States, but Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. Grito de Dolores — the Cry of Dolores — is the true Mexican Independence Day and is celebrated on Sept. 16. Like most gringos, I was once confused by the two events, but that was before I spent a year living in central Mexico not far from where the revolution began.


At the dawn of the 19th century, Mexico was a Spanish colony. Economic practices within the Spanish empire, designed to protect the interests of the wealthy merchants in Spain, left many in Mexico struggling to survive. This was compounded by drought and famine.
The fight for Mexican independence was begun by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest in the village of Dolores, later renamed Dolores Hidalgo in his honor. At Mass on the morning of Sept. 16, 1810, he called for the people to unite in a revolt against the Europeans.
The bloody revolution that followed lasted more than a decade, culminating on Sept. 27, 1821, when a Mexican army commanded by Agustín de Iturbide finally took control of Mexico City. Hidalgo, known today as the Father of Mexico, did not live to see the end of the revolution. He was executed by the Spanish in 1811.
Cinco de Mayo — the fifth of May — commemorates Mexico's struggle against another European power, specifically the victory of a ragtag force of Mexicans over a much larger and better equipped French army in 1862 during the Franco-Mexican War, which lasted from 1861 until 1867.
In 1861, Mexico was in economic ruin and defaulted on its European loans. As a result, France, Britain and Spain sent naval forces to Vera Cruz, Mexico's primary port. Britain and Spain found ways to resolve the matter peacefully and returned home. But Napoleon III saw it as an opportunity to begin rebuilding the French empire in America.
French forces stormed Vera Cruz and landed an invading army. On May 5, 1862, a French force of 6,000 attacked Puebla, a small town south of Mexico City, defended by a force of about 2,000 Mexicans. The battle lasted most of the day, but when it ended the French were forced to retreat. They had lost almost 500 men. The Mexicans had lost less than a 100.
In the context of the Franco-Mexican War, the Battle of Puebla was of little strategic importance, but it was a symbolic victory that gave hope to the Mexicans in their fight to remain independent. French forces remained for several years.
In 1864, Napoleon III named Maximilian emperor of Mexico, but his rule was brief. French success had benefited from the fact that the United States was unable to help Mexico because it was embroiled its own Civil War. Once that war ended, the United States helped Mexico defeat the French.
Today, Grito de Dolores is perhaps Mexico's most important holiday. Cinco de Mayo is not an important holiday in Mexico.
So why is it such a big deal in the United States? In the 1960s, Mexican-Americans began to use the day to celebrate their culture. Over the years it has evolved into a major reason to party. Perhaps that was the influence of the beer promoters. Regardless, Cinco de Mayo offers us a grand opportunity to appreciate our neighbors to the south.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The man behind the Selma bridge

Originally published in the Tampa Bay Times, Friday, March 13, 2015.

It's an iconic image from American history, a visual reminder of one of the most important moments in the civil rights movement — the Edmund Pettus Bridge that crosses the Alabama River at the edge of downtown Selma. But who was Edmund Pettus and what is his connection with the African-American struggle for equality?

Pettus was very much a man of his time, a successful white Southerner who rose to the highest levels of American society. Born in 1821, he attended a small college in Tennessee, married and became a lawyer who was both a solicitor and a judge during the early years of his career. In 1847 he served as a lieutenant with the state militia in the Mexican-American War and then went west to California to fight Indians, before returning to Alabama to practice law in a small town southwest of Selma.
Pettus was a strong supporter of slavery and in 1860 when secession became the mantra of the South he became a prominent proponent. When Alabama left the Union, he helped to organize the 20th Alabama Infantry, fought in several major battles, including the defense of Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Atlanta. He was taken prisoner more than once and was wounded at the Battle of Bentonville in North Carolina, less than a month before the end of the war. Some have suggested that his wounds were self-inflicted, but there is no clear evidence. Ultimately he rose to the rank of brigadier general.
His older brother, John J. Pettus, served as governor of Mississippi during the Civil War. Refusing to accept the end of the Confederacy, he planned to flee to Mexico with his distant cousin, Jefferson Davis, but when Davis was captured, John Pettus went into hiding, dying in Arkansas two years after the war, still a wanted fugitive.
As for Edmund Pettus, his fortunes following the war were far better. He was pardoned by the federal government and returned to his Alabama law practice. There he headed the state delegation to the Democratic National Convention for much of the late 19th century. He also joined the Ku Klux Klan, serving as the "Grand Dragon of the Realm of Alabama" during the final days of Reconstruction in 1877.
Then, in 1896, with the support of his fellow klansmen, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, a staunch racist who campaigned against equality for African-Americans. Re-elected to a second term, he died in 1907, the last Confederate brigadier to serve in that chamber.
For generations men like Pettus had been revered in the South. Their names can be found on public buildings, highways and bridges like the one in Selma. Yet men such as Pettus were responsible for many of the problems that have plagued the South.
It was their arrogance that led to secession and a war that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, North and South. It was the enormous destruction of that war that altered the Southern economy, taking it from the richest region in the nation before the war to the poorest for the next hundred years.
It was these men who were unwilling to cooperate with efforts to reconstruct the South into a region where all human beings were treated equally. Instead, they organized and provided the leadership for terrorist groups like the klan, using violence to disenfranchise African-American voters and create an environment of fear and bitter divisiveness throughout the South.
And, it was their promotion of racism that prevented the working class — black and white — from understanding that if they worked together, rather than hated each other, they could overcome the poverty that plagued the South for most of the Jim Crow era.
Today, looking back at Southern history, there is a great deal of irony in knowing that an unrepentant rebel, a man who adamantly supported the institution of slavery, should have his name forever connected with the African-American struggle for freedom and equality.