By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
Robert E. Lee Day.
That’s a thing in Alabama. And even though Lee’s birthday is Jan. 19, just to make it easy to remember, state leaders decided to honor the South’s top Civil War general on the third Monday in January.
That, of course, also happens to be the day the entire country celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Chalk up one more embarrassment for Alabama in the area of civil rights.
If you’re not from Alabama, you might think such a thing is merely an oversight – an uncorrected holdover from a time we’d all like to forget. Except that’s not true.
Quite a few people don’t want to forget.
While the rest of the country sees the South’s role in the Civil War for exactly what it was – an effort to protect the institution of slavery – a large portion of the South, even today, sees something different.
These people have convinced themselves that the Civil War was not about slavery, but was instead a battle for states’ rights. (The states’ right to own slaves.)
They see the Civil War as the North’s attack on the South’s economy. (The economy built on the back of slave labor.)
And they will argue their absurd points using bits of partially true information – like that a number of Confederate soldiers didn’t even own slaves, proving that they were fighting for southern pride and states’ rights. (Because risking their lives for a cause that would benefit only the wealthy and do nothing for them would be as dumb as voting to give up your health care so a rich guy could get a tax break.)
The truth is, in a long line of lies told to poor Americans in order to bilk them out of their money or property or health, the Civil War was the original lie.
More than 250,000 Confederate soldiers died – most of whom would’ve been just as poor with or without slavery – and thousands more lost their lands, homes, crops and livestock.
All to help prop up the wealthy plantation owners and keep their money flowing – in the hopes that some might trickle down.
Other lies have followed.
Among them has been that whites are superior – smarter, more disciplined and better communicators. Blacks are inferior and barely human – barbaric, animals, mongrels.
If you can convince people of this, it only stands to reason that slavery was a favor to the black man.
Because if slavery was a favor, then there is no need for reparations. There is no need to level the playing field. There is no need to ensure equal opportunity or make good on past transgressions.
You can paint those who might believe otherwise as moochers, lazy and whiners. You can paint an effort for equal rights as an attack on American values.
And you can portray efforts to integrate schools and ensure voting rights for all Americans as dumbing down the country.
Even as that integration and affirmative action leads to huge gains for blacks in education and the workforce, if you’ve continued to water the seeds of racism, you can convince some that enough is enough, that blacks have too many advantages, that whites are under attack.
Never mind that the numbers aren’t close to equal and that whites have lost nothing. Never mind that the portrayal of blacks as animals has led to an onslaught of laws and policing that result in staggering numbers of black citizens locked away for petty offenses.
Over time, the gains made in civil rights can be systematically knocked down. Schools can re-segregate. Affirmative action can all but die. And the Voting Rights Act, which so many good people fought and died for, can be mostly undone – legally.
In an environment like that, where with a wink, we continue to celebrate Robert E. Lee Day on MLK Day and we continue to send black children to public schools named for the men who fought to enslave their ancestors, it’s no wonder, really, that voters might elect a racist billionaire who has, with a wink, promised to put minorities back in their place.
Donald Trump is the not the first to use such racism and bigotry to rally support for a plan that does little to benefit anyone but those who live in his tax bracket.
Like all the times before, the poorest and most vulnerable fell right in line.
And the country continues to suffer because so many keep believing the lie.