David Goldfield is the author of Still Fighting the Civil War. He joins us on the blog today to talk about racism in the South and the nation.
The murders of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and of Philando Castile in St. Paul at roughly the same time underscores what I’ve been teaching and writing about for the past forty years: racism, and particularly the fraught interaction between law enforcement and black males, is a national, not merely a southern problem. The Sterling episode in Baton Rouge does not speak to the persistence of these problems especially in the South. It is a national problem. When the great black leader W.E.B Du Bois wrote in 1903 that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line, he was not referring only to the South.
In 1966, when Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Chicago to protest housing and job discrimination, angry white mobs confronted him and African Americans mostly ignored him. King allowed that in his years in the South he had never seen so much hatred as he saw in Chicago. Today, Chicago is the most segregated city in America.
As for voting rights, again, this is a national problem. The subterfuges of East Baton Rouge Parish, while they may have antedated the current flurry of legislation nationwide to limit minority voting power, is not much different from efforts in some Midwestern states to demand voter IDs, to close polling places, to limit early voting, or to purge voter rolls. Voting rights, like police-community relations, is no longer only a southern problem. It is a national disgrace.
As a native southerner, I looked forward to the day that the South would join the Union and abide by the spirit of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” Unfortunately, the rest of the nation has joined the South. Fortunately, there are places in the South, such as Charlotte, Nashville, and Atlanta — all New South cities — where the fires of brotherhood burn bright, and certainly brighter than in many northern cities. That encourages me to hope not that the South would rejoin the Union, but that southerners would lead the nation to higher ground of racial and ethnic understanding. From history, we especially know how the reverse turns out.