The Myth of the South

The Original “Big Lie”

Structural racism exists as the most historically devastating and debilitating force in our nation. It is a legacy of the nation’s original sin of slavery, one which the nation has yet to atone for. That sin was perpetrated on those enslaved from Africa as well as the nation’s indigenous people. Every state and region of the country is culpable in that history and in reinforcing racial discrimination in the present. However, the South was the epicenter for the nation’s most unspeakable atrocities and some of the most egregious acts of state-sanctioned violence and subjugation.

During slavery, billions of dollars in southern wealth were extracted from the human bodies of the enslaved. In the years after slavery ended, the region maintained white supremacy through the denial of civil rights, wrongful convictions, blocking access to opportunities, underfunding public services, and a range of other actions, all of which were enforced and sanctioned through violence, intimidation, and murder. It took decades of protests to secure the passage of the Civil Rights Movement to begin to address these wrongs. We are nearly six decades removed from the Civil Rights Movement, and the work continues.

Despite that work, the South exists under a shadow-casting cloud. That shadow is the original Big Lie – the fallacy of the role the South played in slavery, Jim Crow, and racial discrimination. For nearly 160 years, the South has been cast as a victim of Northern State aggression. Political leaders as well as some academics have sought to deny the centrality of slavery as the principal cause of the secession of southern states, despite the existence of secession documents and other information proving the contrary. Yet still, many embrace the notion that slavery was a benign institution, and that the enslaved were happy. Moreover, the leaders of the secession of the Southern states have been elevated to saint-like status across the South, represented by the hundreds of statues, street names, buildings, and other tributes to the leaders of the Confederacy. In no other nation on the earth are the leaders of a revolt against the nation elevated and revered.

That historical experience and the cloud of the Big Lie informs individual attitudes, the culture of southern institutions, and serves as the backdrop for today’s public policy at both the national and local level. From the social safety net to gun rights, and from to monetary policy to immigration, it is all informed by the nation’s experience with race and racism, how that racial history has played out in the southern context, and how it gives character and tone to national debates and policies.

On the federal level, calls for the nation to undergo a national truth and healing process are growing louder, and in the halls of Congress, a bill exists that would create a Congressional Truth and Healing Commission. Simultaneously, comparable work is underway in cities and local regions across the country. Organizations like the Kellogg Foundation are leading the charge by providing critical resources and support for this movement. Notwithstanding all this work, as a nation, we are still at the beginning stages of this national conversation on truth and healing. If we are ever to see any real momentum on this movement forward on the issue of race relations, we must address the role of the South as the epicenter for racial strife in America during some of our nation’s most critical moments. As such, it is imperative that the South becomes the beacon for truth and healing and a space for transformation and elevation. In 1999, the City of Greensboro, N.C. set an example for the nation when it impaneled a truth commission to examine the city’s history of racial strife. Many others in the South have taken up the charge since that time.

But there are innumerable truths that remain untold in small hamlets and southern metropolises across the region. Without a full reckoning of the social, financial, and institutional histories of the South, the nation will never be able to move forward. The recent efforts of universities and financial institutions to come to terms with their role in the slave trade is laudable. But the stories of these organizations and their involvement in the slave trade are incomplete without uncovering the intricacies of their connections to the South. History tells us that the national commodity chains of cotton, sugar and human flesh connected southern plantations to northern financiers, northern textile mills, the towns that supported them, as well as international politics and finance.

Without a doubt, racism is a global phenomenon. To be sure, the commodity chains were global in nature connecting the U.S., Britain, South America, Africa, the Caribbean, and the European continent more broadly. Owing to the specific histories of each place, in every context racism takes on a particular character. To understand that character, one must understand the intricacies of geography, politics, money, and religion. In America, that process begins with the real truth of the American South.