Pernell continues ‘healthy discourse’ on Confederate Memorial issue
I write in response to Mr. James Harley’s April 26 letter.
First, I should say how thrilled I am that my original letter regarding the necessity for removing the Confederate Memorial has inspired various personal reflections from our community members. Opportunities and fora to address social issues our community finds essential—even if controversial—are rare. And healthy, nuanced, and respectful discourse about such issues—especially ones that already divide our community—are important.
With that in mind, I address Mr. Harley’s concerns below.
At the outset, I think it necessary to begin by correcting what appears to be a dangerous misunderstanding: that somehow the Civil War was not about slavery.
Mr. Harley alleges that less than 6 percent of southern families owned slaves. “What were the 96.1 percent fighting for?” he asks. I’ll answer that question for him: Non-slaveholders chose to fight for a cause that was about preserving slavery.
“Many people don’t want to believe that the citizens of the southern states were willing to fight and die to preserve a morally repugnant institution,” Colonel Ty Seidule, Professor of History at the United States Military Academy at West Point says. But Colonel Seidule explains that slavery was the “single most important cause of the Civil War for both sides.”
Indeed, in 1860, this state’s own Charleston Mercury, then a local newspaper, declared that the issue before the country was “the extinction of slavery” and that all “not prepared to surrender the institution . . . act.” And “act” is what the soldiers that the Confederate Memorial honors did. Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the new Confederacy after secession, remarked in March 1861: “Our new government was founded on slavery. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, submission to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
It cannot be denied that fighting on behalf of the Confederacy was a fight to preserve the system of slavery.
In an attempt to contest the comparison I raised in my original letter, Mr. Harley states that unlike Nazi Germany, the “southern people didn’t exterminate six million slaves” nor did they “round up African slaves and kill them by the millions just because of who they were.”
Contrary to Mr. Harley’s allegations, I never suggested in my original letter that the Confederate Army and Nazi Germany committed the same immoral atrocities. The shame of both entities’ atrocities, however, should be more comparable.
A brief, fact-supported history lesson demonstrates why.
Mr. Harley ignores that the system of slavery began with millions of African people being kidnapped, enslaved, and shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas under horrific conditions. According to most expert estimates, nearly two million slaves died at sea under the conditions. As American slavery grew, myths of black intellectual inferiority, including ones tied to Christianity, were created by the American citizenry to perpetuate and defend the evil institution of slavery. The enslavement of black people created astonishing wealth and economic prosperity for most of the American public. And sustaining that slavery-based wealth required a system of ruthless physical and sexual violence, or the imminent threat thereof. That is nothing to say of the poor day-to-day conditions most slaves endured. And this was all, to use Mr. Harley’s language, “just because of who they were.”
The Confederate cause was about preserving an institution that perpetuated this morally bankrupt arrangement of black folks’ oppression.
There may be lots of wonderful things to celebrate about one’s ancestors: an ancestor’s complicity in defending the system of slavery, whether he or she personally owned slaves or not, should not be one of them. Assuming that the southern whites Mr. Harley describes were genuinely interested in “defending their homes from Northern invaders” more than anything else, doing so did not require joining the Confederacy. Indeed, a number of white southerners refused to support the Confederacy from the Civil War’s beginning, or later grew to disavow the Confederacy and support rights for black folks during the course of the War—see, for example, Ex-Confederate General Edward Gantt.
The white southerners Mr. Harley describes chose instead to join the Confederacy. Given the system, described above, that the Confederacy aimed to protect, that choice was a disgraceful one and not worthy of honor by way of public memorials.
Astoundingly, I suppose in an attempt to justify slavery, Mr. Harley goes on to state that “slaves were sometimes mistreated.” Really? Just “sometimes?” What does it mean to be a “slave” if not to live a life of perpetual forced, unpaid, and often physically brutal labor; actual or threatened physical violence; no legal standing or equal rights under the law; and little to no decisionmaking power as to the fate of one’s life or his or her family members’ lives?
Indeed, at one point of his letter, Mr. Harley’s characterization of a slave’s life as one abundant with opportunity for spiritual edification and literacy education suggests that the life of a slave was akin to attending a summer enrichment camp. I’m bewildered that more of the white, non-slaveholding folks Mr. Harley describes did not immediately renounce their freedom and join black slaves to take advantage of all of the luxuries associated with a slave’s lifestyle.
All facetiousness aside, Mr. Harley is entitled to his opinions. But he’s not entitled to his own facts. Slaves’ lives were not marked by occasional instances of mistreatment; it was, objectively, a life of oppression. That truth is inherent in the term, “slave.”
Mr. Harley nonetheless persists. Presumably to counter the awful reality for the lives of slaves, he tells stories of devoted slaves and kind, caring slaveowners. Assuming his stories are true, it is reasonable to expect that human beings forced to live and work together are bound to form relationships of some kind. I would be surprised if some slaves and slaveowners did not grow to care for each other on some level.
But that by no means diminishes the terrible conditions under which most slaves, simply by virtue of their race, lived. And, as it relates to my original letter’s central thesis, any such emotional bonds formed certainly do not justify the erection of monuments in this community honoring a cause that, at its core, was a racist effort to maintain the system of political, socioeconomic, and physical oppression of my own ancestors and those of many other Barnwell County community members.
Mr. Harley claims that I attempt to “stir up strife.” Is that a bad thing? The strife I have is with the monuments that honor a cause that represented the destruction of hundreds of thousands of black families and those families’ ancestors based only on their skin color. I think that is strife worth having, and in fact, it is not strife I share alone.
For many members of our community, this strife has always been here. It’s long overdue that we give voice to it.
A native of Blackville, Pernell is a lawyer and former history teacher in South Carolina.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org