For several years EJI has been advancing a project aimed at changing the way Americans think and talk about race.
EJI’s Race and Poverty project is focused on developing a more informed understanding of America’s racial history and how it relates to contemporary challenges.
The lives of African Americans have been profoundly shaped by the era of slavery, the era of racial terror that continued from the end of Reconstruction until World War II, the era of Jim Crow and racial apartheid that produced the civil rights movement, and now the era of mass incarceration. Too often we have appropriately celebrated black achievement and triumph in the face of these obstacles without exploring the very difficult reality of racial inequality and subordination.
EJI believes that reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting this history and finding a way forward that is thoughtful and responsible.
On Wednesday, June 17, a white man shot and killed nine people at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof was arrested and charged with nine counts of murder. Many photographs have surfaced that show Mr. Roof at Confederate heritage sites and posing with Confederate flags; a nearly 2500-word manifesto on a website registered to Mr. Roof describes African Americans as inferior to whites and refers to the Council of Conservative Citizens, an offshoot of a 1950s-era organization that fought school desegregation.
The postings attributed to Mr. Roof embrace a narrative of racial difference that was created to legitimate, perpetuate, and defend slavery. Advocates of slavery argued that science and religion supported the fact of whites’ racial superiority: white people were smart, hard-working, and more morally evolved, while black people were dumb, lazy, child-like, and in need of the guidance and supervision provided by enslavement.
Ending slavery did not eradicate this elaborate mythology of black inferiority. “Freeing” the nation’s enslaved black people without undertaking the work to deconstruct the narrative of inferiority doomed freedmen and -women and their descendants to a fate of subordinate, second-class citizenship. In the place of slavery, this belief in racial hierarchy took expression in many new forms, including lynching and other methods of racial terrorism, segregation and “Jim Crow,” and unprecedented rates of mass incarceration.
More than a generation after the Civil War, Southern whites began asserting their social and cultural dominance by embracing a revisionist history that portrayed the Civil War as a conflict in which the Confederate cause was heroic, honorable, and deserving of tribute. The conflict was recast as one unrelated to the institution of slavery, and the lesson of the Civil War as well as the suffering of generations of enslaved black people was lost. This myth ignored the true brutality of that time period and distorted our national memory of the intermingled links between American slavery, the Civil War, and race.
The claim to Confederate pride re-emerged in the 1950s and 1960s in efforts to assert defiance in the face of a new threat: the growing civil rights movement. Southern white resistance to the civil rights movement on the national stage often shrouded itself in references to the Civil War and the Confederacy’s “bravery in the face of federal tyranny.”
In a not-so-subtle statement of continued Southern commitment to white supremacy, Confederate veterans groups enjoyed renewed interest after World War II and into the 1950s and 1960s, and new groups were formed. In 1959, the Texas chapter of the Children of the Confederacy erected a plaque in the Texas state capitol building which insisted “the war between the states was not a rebellion nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”
Efforts to recast the Civil War and its origins have continued. In 1996, Alabama state senator Charles Davidson supported a bill to fly the Confederate flag atop the state capitol building in Montgomery, asserting that slavery was a “family institution” and “civilizing influence” that gave slaves education and the Christian religion, for which “those converted black Southerners are most grateful today.”
The legacy of slavery, emancipation, white supremacy, and revisionism in the South, and throughout this nation, continues to shape discourse about racial history and impede progress toward honest and hopeful engagement with the past.