The Myth Behind What Happened in Charleston

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tags: racism, Confederate flag, Charleston

David Lee McMullen is an historian who has taught southern history at universities in North Carolina and Florida. He is the author of Strike! The Radical Insurrections of Ellen Dawson, the biography of the co-director of the infamous 1929 Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia, North Carolina.

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In the days since the Charleston shooting, protests against the Confederate battle flag have gone viral. Bringing down that flag is an important first step, but that action alone will not end the cultural conflict that has lasted for more than a century, a conflict that continues to wage a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of all Americans, especially those living in the South.

Known as the “Myth of the Lost Cause,” it is a collection of lies and half-truths that cloud our understanding of America History and help to perpetuate racial bigotry. Its banner is the Confederate battle flag, its heroes are southern generals, its cause is the rewriting of history for the glorification of the Confederacy, and it often comes with a large dose of religious fundamentalism and a coating of regional boosterism.

The myth was born in the ashes of the Civil War, as southerners sought to justify the horrendous loses associated with the war, while unrepentant rebels fought to reestablish white supremacy in the region. It was a time that saw the rise of terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and the disenfranchisement of African Americans through violence and intimidation.

As time passed, the tenets of the myth were codified by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), a group that seeks to preserve “a truthful history of the War Between the States.” In 1904 the group published a catechism designed to teach southern children their version of history. It offered an image of the antebellum South as a nearly perfect world, where slaves were treated as members of the family and white men lived under a code of honor akin to medieval chivalry. It saw the leaders of southern secession not as rebels, but as patriots and denied that upholding slavery was a primary cause of the war. The UDC claimed it was simply a war in which the South defended itself against the onslaught of northern aggression. These ideas provided the dogma that shaped the beliefs by others groups in the South, including the Sons of the Confederacy.

The catechism was just the beginning. The myth began to gain greater popularity through the writings of Thomas Dixon Jr., a Baptist minister from Shelby, North Carolina, remembered for novels about Reconstruction in the South – The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman, published in 1905. Ironically, Shelby is the city where the Charleston shooter was captured.

Dixon’s work was used by filmmaker D.W. Griffith to create the nation’s first blockbuster motion picture, “Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and villianized African Americans. “Birth of a Nation” was immensely popular. It was the first movie shown in the White House. Woodrow Wilson, an historian by training, said it was like seeing history written in lightening. The movie led to a revitalization of the Klan, not just as a southern terrorist group but as a national organization of native-born Americans fearful of the enormous waves of immigrants coming to the United States. This new Klan railed against blacks, Jews, Catholics and anyone else who did not fit their image of a “true American.” While the national Klan was destroyed by its own internal conflicts in the 1920’s, it continues to linger in small splinter groups throughout the South.

The myth was revitalized in the 1930’s with the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind, a book that was later made into another blockbuster motion picture.

During the civil rights movement that emerged following World War II, the myth helped fuel the anger and violence of white southerners, particularly those at the lowest economic and educational levels. It can be found in the rhetoric of Strom Thurmond, the 1948 Dixiecrat candidate for president, as well as the later presidential campaigns of Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

Despite the distorted history, the inaccurate images and the barefaced lies, the Myth of the Lost Cause is still potent propaganda for those who refuse to accept change. It pollutes our history and our culture, it poisons the minds of our citizens, it promotes terrorist acts and it prevents us from effectively confronting racism.  

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