Apart from murdering nine people, Dylann Roof, the deluded young man, a racist believer in white supremacy, has probably achieved one thing: the removal of the Confederate flag from its present position by the Confederate monument in Charleston to a museum which is where it surely belongs. It is a century and a half since the South lost the Civil War, slavery was declared illegal, and the Union preserved. The Civil War is history, and an attachment to the idea of the Confederacy is as futile, and should be as harmlessly nostalgic, as an attachment to Jacobitism was by the time Sir Walter Scott wrote Waverley. If it isn’t, it is because the United States, and not just the South, is still afflicted by the festering sore of racism and race relations.
The myth of the Old South remains potent, however. Just as the Jacobites had the best songs, so the South has the best movie – Gone With The Wind. Its version of the gallant and defeated South is still attractive. Sherman’s burning of Atlanta followed by his brutal and destructive march through Georgia is the South’s Culloden. There is often a romance about a lost cause, and the cause of the South, which fought for four years against overwhelming odds, was in the end thoroughly lost.
There is a Northern myth too, one which is now generally believed: that the war was fought to abolish slavery and free the blacks. It wasn’t. Certainly many in the Northern states disapproved of slavery, and were shocked and horrified by what was called “the peculiar institution”. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin expressed this horror very powerfully. Abraham Lincoln detested slavery and believed that the United States could not endure as a country “half slave and half free”. But he didn’t go to war to end slavery (and he didn’t incidentally believe in racial equality). He went to war to preserve the Union from which the Southern states had voted to secede. If they had agreed to remain within the Union, slavery would not have been abolished. In time it would doubtless have withered, if only because the economy based on slavery would have proved unsustainable.
The South seceded in defence of states’ rights and, as, they saw it, freedom. They had other grievances against the North, notably the US government’s tariff policy. That protected the Northern industrial economy and imposed high costs on the agrarian South which was prevented from buying what would have been cheaper manufactured goods from Britain – the South’s chief trading partner, buyer of southern cotton and tobacco. But the main complaint was the increasing power of the Federal government in Washington. The vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander H Stephens, from Georgia, wrote that it was “a conflict between the true supporters of the Federal Union of States established by the constitution, and those whose object was to overthrow the constitution, and by usurpation to erect a national consolidation in its place.” The South, in his opinion was fighting against “centralism, despotism and imperialism.” This was why southerners like Robert E Lee, who disapproved of slavery, fought for the Confederacy. Lee was a Virginian before he was an American.
Well, the South was utterly defeated. States’ rights have ever since taken a back seat as the federal government has extended its powers. The South suffered the humiliation and pain of reconstruction, and resented it. Then it re-established white supremacy by devious means, denying blacks the vote and imposing segregation, a system that survived until the intervention of the Supreme Court of the USA in the 1950s and 60s. Since then the South has changed, however reluctantly. Race relations may still be bad in many places, but you now have black mayors, black judges, black legislators, even black police chiefs.
Dylann Roof’s killing spree was not only wicked but stupid and futile. He hoped to ignite a race war. There isn’t one and there won’t be one. He draped himself in the Confederate flag and pinned versions of the flags of white Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa on his jacket. Didn’t he realise he was identifying himself with losers? One may call him a terrorist and it is reasonable to do so, but his was a peculiarly pointless act of terrorism. Nobody of any substance is going to respond and rise in support of white supremacy. You might as well go to Glenfinnan and raise the Jacobite standard
Racism is doubtless still rife, race relations poor in many parts of the USA, especially, though not only, in the South. But time is taking care of this. As President Obama has pointed out, things are incomparably better than they were even 50 years ago. Racism may never be eradicated; it simmers under the surface everywhere, not only in the USA. But it is generally condemned. White supremacy belongs in the museum with the Confederate flag.
America’s most urgent problem is not racism; it is gun control, or, rather, the absence of such control, an absence which allows an inadequate and unbalanced young man like Dylann Roof to obtain a firearm, no questions asked. Other leaders of advanced nations, Obama remarked, don’t have to go on television repeatedly to deplore shooting sprees and mass killings. Of course such horrors happen in other countries too; we in Scotland can’t forget Dunblane. But usually they do so only because someone has slipped through the net and controls have failed, not because there are virtually no controls. It is America’s love affair with the gun which is the 21st century’s “peculiar institution”, one based on a misreading of the second amendment to the constitution relating to the right to bear arms. Even if this is not, as some maintain, a misreading, amendments can be repealed, and this one should be. No doubt the influence of the National Rifle Association will be brought to bear to prevent this; evidence that the NRA is a more dangerous organisation than the Ku Klux Klan.