Time Will Tell
Slaves first arrived in Virginia in 1619. In the years that followed, slavery to a greater or lesser degree spread to all of the colonies. But once the new nation formed, Southerners quickly recognized that the influence and prosperity of their region (unlike that of the North and Northwest) would depend upon the continued growth and expansion of the institution. Accordingly, for well over a half century, the South became a pre-eminent slave society. Southern elites depended upon the profits slave labor generated; southern politicians, both in their states and in Washington, defended slavery and warded off threats real or imagined, while southern apologists fashioned an ideology that viewed slavery as a “positive good,” which permitted the white race to achieve a higher level of civilization, even as it simultaneously lifted blacks out of the barbarism that had been their lot in Africa. As northern criticism of slavery grew over the early decades of the 19th Century, southerners became even more insistent that they had chosen the right path, some even suggesting that northerners consider converting their so-called “free labor” into a slave work force. Southerners could not conceive that, were blacks somehow to become free, there could even be a place for them in society. (Indeed, many southern states required that if individual slaves were freed they must leave.)
Slavery became ever more entrenched, even as North-South tensions heightened in the 1850’s. The slave population increased, slave prices rose, and southern leaders looked to the west and even beyond to the Caribbean as likely areas for further slave expansion. Far from heading toward extinction, southern slavery seemed destined to survive, even thrive indefinitely. But then, in 1861, the delicate political balance, the crafted compromises between North and South collapsed, and a violent and prolonged civil war enveloped the once united states.
It required four years for the North, after heavy fighting and appalling losses on both sides, to subdue the South. It took one bullet lodged in the brain of President Abraham Lincoln to reduce the chances of post-war reconciliation between North and South. What followed instead was an effort by Northern republicans to “reconstruct” the defeated South by sending Federal troops to occupy the region, making citizens out of, and giving the vote to, recently emancipated slaves and supporting black landowners and office holders in the region.
Most Southern whites were appalled. This largely “outside” effort to elevate and support blacks and to disenfranchise many former Confederates was regarded as outrageous. It overturned a social order that had prevailed for centuries. Southern whites struck back with mob action, terror tactics against blacks, economic pressure and coercion and voting fraud. Before long, they had successfully reversed what Northern Republicans had hoped to accomplish. Through strict segregation, voting disqualification, the crop lien and share cropping labor systems, convict labor and lynching, blacks were once more “put in their place,” relegated to the bottom of society, kept down decade after decade, extending well into the 20th Century. Thus a majority of white southerners had refused to accept the verdict of the
Civil War, resisted all efforts to realign racial relationships, rallied around the Confederate flag, took their “cause” to the national political scene and even persuaded many Northerners of its merits.
Post World War II America, triumphant over Germany and Japan, seemed eager to enjoy the fruits of the amazingly productive machine that had been put in place for the war effort. As the economy shifted over to consumer goods, it would not be long before memories of the harsh Depression Years would fade. Women returned to serving as homemakers, suburban growth exploded, birth rates soared, “organization men” conformed to corporate expectations, while the cold war and Communist threat descended upon the nation, encouraging Americans to believe even more fervently in American exceptionalism and the “American Way.”
Then the sixties exploded, bringing with it a level of social turbulence never before experienced in the United States. The civil rights movement burst out in all sorts of directions – marches, demonstrations, shows of force and of faith. The activism of African Americans encouraged others to organize and insist upon their rightful places in America. Latinos, Native
Americans, homosexuals, the disabled, above all – women, demanded recognition, rights and the acknowledgement of wrongs committed against them over the years. Entering into this somewhat chaotic mix were young people bent on establishing a distinct identity quite different from their parents and at odds with anyone “over 30.” They dressed differently, were “all in” with new musical expressions and rhythms, rejected traditional social norms and sexual conventions, entered into the drug culture and displayed little respect and no tolerance of those who retained the “old ways.” Then came mounting opposition, especially on college campuses to the Vietnam War, the political class that defended and supported it, the police (“pigs”) that broke up anti-war demonstrations, the draft that furnished recruits for the war machine the defense industries that benefitted from the conflict, and the “misguided” patriots that defended our intrusion into Southeast Asia. Multiple assassinations of prominent leaders, a president “forced” from the White House, blood in the streets at the Democratic convention in Chicago (1968), violent crackdowns on the Black Panthers, along with acts of terror and urban riots, made Americans insecure, fearing for the future of their nation.
The raw emotions of the 60’s and 70’s have receded, but few have forgotten the great divides that were revealed in those years. They still echo in those millions that protest the availability of abortion, show contempt for “privileged” college kids, defend the police and the right to own guns, venerate the American flag, the Constitution, the religious foundations of our nation, and the traditional roles men deservedly exercise. These beliefs form the substance of an ideological movement spearheaded by right wing think tanks, evangelical organizations, talk show hosts and conservative writers who pillory the Liberal Establishment and support the grievances of those “forgotten” Americans who object to the cultural patterns that have gained wide acceptance. The divisions first revealed in the 1960’s thus have endured, will continue to shape the discourse, the politics and the direction of the nation for the foreseeable future.
Action begets reaction; rapid alteration induces backlash. Change rarely proceeds uninterrupted or in a straight line. Rather, expect reaction, resistance, re-evaluation and perhaps a level of acccommodation. The post Civil War South recoiled and reacted against the effort on behalf of African Americans, just as millions of American were affronted by the divisive culture wars that swept over the nation beginning in the 1960’s. Only in time can a new order emerge.