The Civil War didn’t truly end in 1865. The battlefield part ended, but the antigovernment, white-supremacist insurgency continues, damaging us in the present and putting our future at risk.
If that seems an odd idea, it is because we seldom talk straight about that history or the issues left unresolved by the hot war. But they burn beneath our feet like magma, showing on the surface periodically like steam venting from a sleeping volcano.
The latest hissing comes from Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy from Bunkerville (really, no one made that up). Bundy slipped from asserting his right to take federal resources without paying for them to expounding on the state of “Negroes,” lost without cotton to pick.
He’d become a sort of hero to folks on the right end of the political spectrum, including some prominent Republican politicians, but they did a hotfoot dance away when he spoke candidly on race.
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Let’s remember what he said before moving on to why it shouldn’t be surprising that he said it, and to why it’s not just the spouting of an isolated oddball.
“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?”
How’d he come by all this deep understanding? Well, one day he drove past a housing project in North Las Vegas and saw some black residents sitting out front.
I used to help my Uncle Will do yard work. We usually would take a short break to drink a Dr Pepper sitting in front of a little store. One afternoon, a car pulled up to the curb and the white men inside yelled something to the effect that we should get off our lazy rear ends and do some work for a change. They used more colorful language including some choice labels. My uncle told me to just ignore them, but I think we need to pay some attention to the context from which they and Bundy arise.
When the fighting ended in 1865, federal troops remained in the states that had been in rebellion to facilitate Reconstruction, including the integration of formerly enslaved people into a new South. That effort lasted only a dozen years before Southerners were able to make a deal to get federal troops out and to rebuild the South in their own way through terrorism and Jim Crow (segregation) laws that amounted to an American apartheid. Jim Crow lasted until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
We just marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and next month will be the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, but we are still struggling against the inequality those government actions were meant to eliminate. Some people never let go of the ideology that made those laws necessary, though their language and tactics continue to change to fit the times.
It is no surprise that a man who says the federal government has no legitimate authority over him would also believe black people would be better off picking cotton for pennies, or maybe for free. He got into trouble because he said what he meant straight up rather than referring to the ills of the “urban” population as some do.
Before that error in judgment, Bundy was praised by many on the right for his principles.
Look at what’s happened to the Republican Party since the Civil Rights Era. The party has supplanted the Democrats as the party of the white South and in so doing has taken up old battles of Southern segregationists.
An informative analysis of voting patterns in the deep South, by Nate Cohn, in The New York Times, shows that from the Texas Panhandle to the coast of Georgia, voters are strictly divided by race with the overwhelming majority of white voters supporting Republicans and every other group supporting Democrats.
We are still divided even as, or perhaps especially as, the nation becomes more diverse than ever. The division keeps us fighting battles that should have been left in our past when we should be marching toward a better future.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org