Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson: Haley Barbour's 'diddly' sense of slavery's history

Apr 13, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.
In today's column Gene writes: It amounts to much more than "diddly" that so many Americans try hard to avoid coming to terms with the reality of slavery. It wasn't just "a bad thing." Littering is a bad thing. Slavery was this nation's Original Sin, and yet many people will not look at it except through a gauze of Spanish moss.

Hello, everyone. It's a day to be stuck. Anyone unlucky enough to be trying to negotiate traffic in Washington today is stuck, and probably fuming, because of the gridlock induced by the nuclear security summit. And here, in our little, corner, we're stuck on slavery, believe it or not. Today's column was about Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's "Confederate History Month" proclamation and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's assessment that the whole flap -- about McDonnell initiatially not mentioning slavery -- doesn't "amount to diddly." Your humble columnist was not amused. And still isn't. Let's get started.

A LOT of Virginians familiar with Bob McDonnell's past legislative history warned us that his moderate stance during the campaign was just an act. But a lot of national media figures (including your colleagues at "Morning Joe") just rolled their eyes and said the thesis wasn't germane. Do you think you'll ever get an admission from them that just maybe his past did matter? And do you think voters will be more wary of these GOP "moderates" come election time, after McDonnell's widely publicized actions as governor involving gay employment rights and Confederate history?

I think that if McDonnell wants to be seen as a moderate, he needs to stop doing immoderate things.

I couldn't agree more with your statement that much of the white south likes to see the issue of slavery "through the gauze of Spanish Moss". I'm the great grandson of a confederate veteran from Va. "Gone with the Wind" version of the south all my life. We, as Americans, need to expose these revisionists every time they rear their heads Gov. McDonnell is most disturbing because he has taken the first three months of his tenure and instead of using his position to foster better education or better roads or many of the other problems in this state, he (and his attorney general) has chosen to throw the red meat of anti-minority, anti-gay, and anti-federal government to the far right of his party. This man is proving to be a catastrophe for this state.

The one quibble I have with your otherwise good analysis is that I'm not sure McDonnell can be held responsible for everything that Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli says or does. He's out there beyond Pluto in terms of his right-wing fringe views.

The rise of militias, the heated rhetoric and distortion of facts for political gain, what appears to be the reactionary fear that has consumed much of white, and especially white Southern, America is beginning to alarm me. Most especially that you can't reason with these types of people, even if they seem reasonably intelligent and even if you truly care about them and approach them that way. This seems like a very dangerous game that is being played. How close are we to the edge, in your opinion?

Mr. Robinson, it seems to me that there are large groups of people who view the Civil War through rose colored glasses. These folks argue about State Rights and honor and brotherhood but understate the simple fact that the Confederacy was a really a feudal system where a minority of white land owners brutally enriched themselves of the backs of black slaves and landless white poor people. The governor of Virginia did not accidentally forget to include a statement about slavery in his proclamation. He meant to present a romantic, polished image of the Confederacy in order to attact tourist dollars and to throw a bone to like minded people. What is your opinon about this thought process?

I can't get inside McDonnell's thought process. I assume that his decision to  issue a Confederate History Month proclamation at all was political, just as the decision by the previous two governors (both Democrats) not to issue such proclamations was also political. Yes, I think he wanted to appeal to those wistful revisionists who see the Civil War as a matter of honor and all that rot. But I think his failure to mention slavery at all might have been a rookie mistake. He did, after all, apologize and correct the record. But nothing compelled him to issue a proclamation in the first place, did it?

You mischaracterize the origins of the Atlantic slave trade in today's column. You say, "An estimated 17 million Africans ...were snatched from their families." You imply that Europeans went to Africa looking for people to enslave, which is not the case. The Atlantic slave trade began when European explorers, looking for gold, etc, were offered the opportunity to buy slaves. Who offered? Africans. Who had enslaved the Africans? Other Africans. The difficult truth is that there was already a robust centuries-old slave trade on the continent. In your column you say, "Americans should know, for example, that Wall Street's rise as a financial center was largely fueled by the cotton trade, which could not have functioned without slavery..." Well, black Americans should know it was other Africans who enslaved their ancestors in the first place.

So let me get this straight. If you went to, say, Ghana, and somebody offered to sell you a bunch of people, you'd say sure, what the hell, load 'em up and let's go? You'd take them to Charleston, sell some to other people, maybe keep a few for yourself, force them to work, abuse the men, rape the women and feel that you had no responsibility since the original "sellers" of these people were also black? Is that what you're saying? North Americans wanted slaves to provide free labor, and built an economy dependent on that free labor. Look it up.

I so appreciate your column this morning, but I wished it was written by someone else....a person not of color and a person who holds to "Conservative" political beliefs.. The notion that the Republican Govenor of Mississippi can make this comment and not be called on it from every corner of the political spectrum speaks volumes to how much further we have to go in this country. If Conservatives want to reach out to African Americans, let them know that celebrating the Confederacy and all that the Confederacy meant is not a Conservative value that they want to continue.

You've told them. Let's see if anyone pays attention.

Why do you think the question of "celebrating" the history of the confederacy is still a question in this county? And do you think there's a huge disconnect for some white Americans about the true impact of slavery, which resulted in Jim Crow and led to the necessity of the civil rights movement? I say there's a disconnect because I've witnessed white Americans rationalize slavery and the confederacy in one breath, and condemn Nazis and the holocaust in the next. In a sociology course my freshman year in college, the question of the confederate flag came up and the entire class agreed that there's no big deal about it, because it merely represented a part of history. I and the only other black kid in the class disagreed and said if the confederate flag merely represents history, then surely the swastika also represents history. They exploded and said the swastika is different because people died during the holocaust and to fly that flag would be disrespectful. Needless to say, my friend and I were speechless and exhausted after endless debating to get most of the class to admit black people also died during slavery, so the confederate flag could also be hurtful. The point is, I think slavery is so far removed from the consciousness of white America that it's not real anymore. Slavery is like a fairy tale, or Santa. We've all heard of Santa but doubt he really exists. Why do you think slavery is so dismissed and treated cavalierly while something equally horrible like the holocaust is correctly vilified and condemned?

Because this country has never really wanted to learn about slavery. We don't really teach it in the schools. A lot of people prefer to pretend it never happened, or that it was somehow benign. I don't make Holocaust analogies and I don't make slavery analogies, either, because these were unique horrors. What they share in common is that everyone should learn about them. Slavery began here in 1619. Learning about slavery isn't studying black history, it's studying American history -- because slavery played a huge role in the birth and development of this nation.

It's worth reporting extensively that McDonnell got the GOP controlled Virginia House of Delegates to open each session with the United Daughter's of the Confederacy's Pledge to the Flag of Virginia. A big stink erupted when the source of the pledge was identified a few days after the delegates voted to adopt it. The Confederate History Month proclamation that McDonnell put out wasn't just the same old proclamation that had been in effect before the Democrats got rid of it. The Gilmore and George 'Macacca' Allen proclamations noted the past included slavery. So the current governor needed to look back quite a ways to get the model proclamation that he wanted.

1861 all over again in Virginia (Right Now, Post, April 7)

I never thought I'd look back fondly on the administration of George Allen.

I am tired of reading comments to the effect that "you were never a slave and you have nothing to 'whine' about(as one poster put it). Jim Crow was real and personal to you. Can you talk about that?

I could talk about it at great length, but in the interest of time  will just say that you're right. The Orangeburg, S.C., that I grew up in had segregated schools and public accommodations. We had to go into the back entrances of some stores. Today, it's a shock to hear the so-called "n-word" spoken in anger, but we heard it all the time. Blacks were denied political power and various means were found to keep us from voting. In 1968, three black students were shot and killed by state troopers during a demonstration over a segregated bowling alley downtown. I could go on and on.

Hello Mr. Robinson: In 2003, Haley Barbour, then running for governor of Miss, was photographed with the leadership of the Council Of Conservative Citizens ( CCC). This photo ran proudly on their website. More recently, a state legislator, described as his "right hand" visited the group. The CCC, the descendant of the white citizens councils of the past, are roundly condemned as racist and anti-semitic. Why has no one mentioned this. Isn't it relevant?

I haven't seen that photo, but it would certainly be relevant to me.

A quick Google image search yields a few results for this photo. Can't vouch for the source.

Gene: It's been interesting to see the tit-for-tat comments over McDonnell's initial honoring of Confederate history. As usual, there are apologists who say, "Few Southerners owned slaves. They were fighting for their states, fighting for their homes." Then someone will come back with a series of quotes from the men who drove secession, such as Alexander Stephens, who went on to serve as VP of the Confederate States of America. Every one of these quotes, every one, mentions the right of Southerners to own slaves, citing either the inherent inferiority of African-Americans, the economic necessity of slavery in an agrarian culture, or both. While the average Reb may have not owned slaves, there is no doubt--none--that the Southern power structure brought on the war in order to protect the "peculiar institution." People who claim this is not the case are simply deluded.

Simply deluded or simply lying. The Civil War didn't just happen out of nowhere in 1861. For decades, the nation had been in turmoil over the issue of slavery. To claim that slavery was somehow ancillary is insane.

As an American History teacher living in the South, I try to explain to my students that 90% of Southerners lived in utmost poverty.Very few white southerners have relatives who owned property of any kind, and the south was backwards and illiterate not just because of the institution of slavery, but because of the dominance of the few slaveholding plantation owners who had an interest in keeping all southerners in poverty and ignorance. Why would white southerners celebrate such a system, and honor the confederacy? How can we fight this ignorance when members of government want to claim pride in the heritage of ignorance and deprivation? Why do you think so many white southerners were willing to fight for the confederacy, when it was a system that had deprived them of life, liberty and property as well?

I think they were led into the conflict without knowing who the real enemy was.

Is there anything wrong with honoring the dead who gave their lives in a forlorn cause? The fact is the poor men of the South who were killed and hideously wounded in defense of what, in their time, they perceived to be their nation, namely their individual states, should not be dismissed or disregarded. Slavery was abhorent. This is why Southerners called it the "peculiar institution." Because they knew something was wrong with it but it was too inconvenient to abolish that dreadful traffic. That being said may we not honor the dead?

Just don't expect me to honor them. "Inconvenient" to abolish slavery? Try to imagine how inconvenient it must have been to be a slave.

Gene, it has always felt to me that most whites want to feel like this is an issue that only pertains to blacks and is our attempt at trying to make them feel guilty for past sins. But do you feel like this is not a racial issue, but as you stated in your piece, a historic issue that goes to the core of American democracy? If we, as a nation, could be more mature about this subject and emphatically state that we were wrong in this regard and that we will work tirelessly to ensure other nations do not repeat our initial mistakes, wouldn't we be better able to be more forceful against other nations that commit human rights violations?

I would think so. The first step is to understand our history and come to terms with it.

I'm from a moderate county in a "confederate" state. Our parents were mostly from other places, brought together by the space industry. But even in our part of the south my opinions were shaped by the books and teachings of our elementary and middle school ciriculum. Namely, southern generals were brilliant, courageous, and full of valor. While northern generals were drunken, murderous villians supported by sheer numbers and a unified rail system, and the war was not about slavery, but state's rights. It wasn't until we were all made to watch the movie "Roots" in 8th grade that any of us shed a tear for slaves. I wasn't wrong or cruel, just mis-informed. I have deep love for the south and many of its ideals, but I can only imagine how a guy like Barbour is programmed. I'm hoping that a review of our old ciriculum would be laughable, and that the new lesson is more direct.

In 2015, if all goes according to schedule, the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African-American History and Culture will open on the Mall, next to the Washington Monument. I hope people visit it in huge numbers, and I hope more Americans understand that (at the risk of repeating myself) black history is American history.

So we can't talk about Confederates without talking about slavery. In fact, in your opinion it appears if we talk about the Confederates and don't talk about slavery we're racists. Do you really think people are unaware of our history with slavery? Is the word slavery required to be said everytime the word Confederate is said? Can we talk about ancient Rome without talking about slavery? Barbour was right, and if we are ever to truly get past race issues in America, you need to stop always thinking in terms of color. Yes slavery was horrible, it was a horrible act of cruelty against mankind perpetuated by mankind. Both white men and black men participated in enslaving people, and both black men and white men suffered it's abuses. This is not a new revelation. Yet there isn't one black man or woman alive today who was a slave, nor a white man or woman who was a slaveowner. So give it a rest, stop living in the past, and stop making everything about race.

I'm not the one living in the past. I'm not the one who declared Confederate History Month. And yes, as far as I'm concerned, if you're going to celebrate the Confederacy, you have to deal with what the Confedracy was all about.

Hi Mr. Robinson -- you finally wrote a column with which I am in perfect agreement. I am a conservative Republican and Evangelical Christian (not a redundancy) and have lived in the South my entire life, including nine years in Charleston. I am white. My ancestors owned slaves and a great-great-great-uncle was a Confederate who died after being shot at Getteysburg. The treatment of Africans and their descendents in this country continues to be a scandal and blight. Politicians who scratch at these old wounds and re-energize discussions of our treatment of racial minorities do us all a favor by giving a new opportunity to discuss these issues and remember the sacrifices of so many people to get us as far as we are today regarding race.

Thanks so much for your comments. We d0 make progress on issues of race. It's never easy, and it always involves argument and conflict, but we make progress.

See, I see a contradiction there. I think that by segregating black history into a black history museum, we allow everyone not-black who is not already sympathetic to ignore it, thinking that there is nothing in there of any value to anyone not-black. Better to continue to fight for full inclusion in the American History museum than to be ghettoized.

You are right that there is a contradiction, and you are right that ultimately we should look at all the strands of American history as a whole. So maybe this is still just an intermediate step. But the fact is -- and it's demonstrated by some of the posts we've seen today -- that there is a ton of ignorance about the history of black people in this country, about slavery, about Jim Crow. Before we can meld that story into the larger American story, we need to know it. And so far, we've barely scratched the surface.

I am a lifelong Va. resident. When Mr. Obama won the presidency there was a sudden spike in the wearing and/or displaying of various Confederate items in the small town where I live. There was even a heated discussion at my high school (I am the RN) over students being able to wear these items. The argument ( I kid you not) was if kids could wear Obama shirts why not Confederate flags. I think that's called southern free speech and this same theme is being perpetuated by our Governer. What an embarrassment. Keep up the good work Mr. Robinson

Thanks. Not a coincidence, I think.


With that, folks, my time is up for today. Thank you so much for a good discussion, and we'll meet again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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