Opinion: Message to Congress: Apologize for Slavery and Reconstruction Special

By Carol Forsloff.
Published Jun 19, 2009
America elected an African American as President. Even as suspicion and distrust arose in the South, the aftermath of election could be used for healing. That’s because reconstruction as well as slavery needs to be part of an apology.

Yesterday the Senate unanimously passed a resolution to apologize to African Americans for slavery and segregation on the eve of Juneteenth, recognizing the end of slavery and the Civil War of 1865. It is now to go to the House for approval for an anticipated celebration next month.

But the apologies should go further, as I learned yesterday from a man I had never met nor heard of before. He called me during my radio show, then asked to meet with me afterward. He wanted me to know a story, and that story became my gift.

I met the red-faced old man, Mr. William Lang, with his scrubby, whiskered chin and country clothes, who appeared to me the epitome of the red-neck stereotype of Louisiana, complete with Deep South parlance. He was there when the radio program had finished. His eyes were intense as he said, “Something needs to be done. People need to know how much these men suffered.” He then went on to narrate the introduction to a story that I was to finish from stacks of books he had brought with him. He said, “I want folks to know. Someone needs to tell this story.”

When Lang left, I drove home, suddenly with new understanding that his story might be a healing message for true reconciliation in this country. And I thanked him with my heart as I understood his mission.

The Senate’s apologies were admirable, but there is more to the story of the Civil War than slavery. The slaves were freed, but after the Civil War came a wave of corruption that brought death and terror to thousands of white Southerners, as the victor took vengeance on the vanquished. As this happened, African American slaves were released into a world without preparation, economic support, education, or understanding.

Three acres and a mule didn’t help former slaves become truly independent, so freedom became groping for survival in a climate of superstition and mistrust on all sides. The Yankee carpetbagger came to town in the midst of this, confiscating property and savaging the culture.

No one sympathized with the confederate soldier or the poor white Southerner, painted with the brush of revolution and slave-holding, even as many had tried to eke out a living on land that had been left impoverished by burning crops and destroying lands. The great social divide between black and white was made permanent as part of both political and social control since lawlessness became the order of the day after the Civil War. And anger was stoked by the experiences of confederates who had been Union Army prisoners who told stories of inhuman suffering to families and friends who couldn’t understand or wanted to forget.

This is the history of the angry, white man of the South and the roots of resentment. Perhaps it is the reason Barack Obama took only 14 percent of the white vote of the Deep South. Perhaps he symbolized the “Negro” put in power by outsiders. Perhaps Obama is seen through the prism of the bad memories of hurt ancestors and long-standing fears and hatreds. Stories of those ancestors, neither understood nor even heard by those outside the region, remain part of the legacy of the Old South. These memories of ancestors, demoralized and degraded, have been carried into a new century where the pain continues.

No one apologized to the confederate prisoners of the Civil War because the South was guilty, and the guilty need lessons, so the victors believed. Divisions between ranchers, farmers and manufacturers because of different social, economic and philosophical beliefs are widened as a result of painful ancestral memories. Those memories form colorful fabric pieces of a quilt that spreads across the Deep South. But the quilt of many colors, which could be beautiful with its varying hues, instead becomes one that covers problems so the body of truth can’t be seen.

The Congress apologized, but reconciliation can’t happen fully when enemies treat those they vanquish with vengeance and never say, “I’m sorry.” The blue and gray of the Civil War become the blue and red of the 21st century political map, and the healing never happens.

Perhaps America should apologize to the South for Reconstruction, for not helping the region recover from the Civil War, for imprisoning thousands of Southern men inhumanely and for continuing the mockery of Southern traditions and culture to this day.

The divisions among Americans today, and some of the resentment over the election of Barack Obama, are part of the lessons of the Civil War, and of all wars, which is this: the neighbor you hate today may be the very person you need tomorrow to survive.

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