Civil War sesquicentennial provides opportunity for dialogue
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

We live in an age that is largely unconcerned with history. This is too bad because the past is a valuable source of wisdom and guidance. When history is twisted or glossed over, it undermines our ability to learn from the past and inform a positive vision for the future.

Southerners are a romantic breed, passionate about history. However, we tend to graciously avoid topics tied to racial issues of the past so as not to trip over strong emotions that echo in the present. By doing so, we tend to talk past one another instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue.

The tension we avoid is the kind of nonviolent confrontation the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to in his famous ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’ King wrote that a certain measure of constructive tension ‘will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.’

This coming December will mark the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the union. This sesquicentennial presents an opportunity to expand the ‘monologue’ that has, thus far in 2010, been associated with controversy surrounding two monuments proposed for the Charleston area.

The first is a memorial to Denmark Vesey, a former slave and master carpenter who purchased his freedom after winning a city lottery. Vesey, it is commonly believed, was plotting a large slave insurrection, before being arrested, tried, and executed in 1822. At the monument’s groundbreaking ceremony in early February, Mayor Riley deemed Denmark Vesey’s efforts a ‘courageous quest for liberty and self-determination.’ Others allege Vesey’s plot involved the murder of whites, and thus feel he should not be commemorated. Either way, there’s no question that Vesey’s actions struck fear in the population and fed the siege mentality in place since Charleston was a walled city.

The second monument is proposed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and is intended to honor the men who signed the Ordinance of Secession in 1860. Defenders of secession believe in voluntary union, and maintain a state’s right to withdraw from that union is a legitimate check against the potential tyranny of central government.

They point to the Declaration of Independence, arguing the men who signed the Ordinance were acting wholly within their right to divorce themselves from the government they believed to be engaging in abuses and usurpations that would ultimately lead to absolute despotism. By adopting the Ordinance of Secession, signers felt they were working toward providing ‘new Guards for their future security.’ Unfortunately, these ‘new Guards’ perpetuated the same immoral system of slavery that existed under the old system. Nevertheless, as with Vesey’s actions, secession was, in the signers’ minds anyway, a ‘quest for liberty and self-determination.’

Opponents of this monument, such as the Rev. Joseph Darby, accuse the secessionists of being traitors to the United States. They point to the fact the signers were members of a relatively small aristocracy of slaveholders who monopolized political power and held the allegiance of non-slave- holding whites by cultivating racial prejudice.

The chronic aversion to mature dialogue about our past is a form of denial. This psychological defense mechanism has long hampered South Carolina progress by addicting it to the politics of race.

Shall we overcome? If political addiction was viewed in the same manner as substance addiction, the humane first step would be to stop feeding the addiction and start acknowledging truth. As uncomfortable as this process might be, it could serve as the type of ‘constructive tension’ Dr. King felt was often necessary to achieve healing and enlightenment.

Perhaps this year offers a good time for reflection and prayer about our history. With grace and willpower, SCV members, Mayor Riley, Rev. Darby, and other leaders could help citizens advance freedom through discourse that scales ‘the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.’

Just because one cannot imagine something possible, doesn’t make it impossible. Dum Spiro Spero. While I Breathe, I Hope. It’s South Carolina’s state motto.

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