Appomattox

Today marks the sesquicentennial of Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia and the effective end of the US Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, if you stubbornly cling to a past that never was). I am proud that the Union won the war (though my own home state of Utah, then a territory, was ambivalent in its loyalties and was legally a slave territory). Many Southerners also claim to be proud of their heritage with regard to the war, though I am not sure of what they have to be proud.

Their forebears fought a war in defense of slavery (an unambiguous evil) or “states rights” (which has been, almost without exception, a mask for evil). They lost this conflict, but refused to accept defeat like men. Instead, in place of the barbarous institution of slavery and the feudal society that accompanied it, southern whites worked to build up institutions that would maintain white supremacy and protect the dominance of the ruling class. Against the bold Reconstruction of the South envisaged by the Radical Republicans—the most left wing political faction of the time—unrepentant southern traitors unleashed a tirade of ankle biting and petty terrorism (most famously exemplified by the original Ku Klux Klan, but actually carried out by a wide array of paramilitary and fraternal organizations).
Thaddeus Stevens

Unfortunately, the Union that had so bravely and boldly won the war was soft and cowardly in peace. Within a generation, the attempts of the Radical Republicans to establish full civil and political rights for freed slaves and their descendants were all but forgotten. Instead of a sensible land reform in which freed slaves would receive the land that they worked and the houses in which they toiled, property was placed back in the hands of the aristocratic turncoats who had led out in the betrayal of their nation and its constitution. This decision has crippled race relations in the United States ever since.

Now, the political system seems very much transformed. Democrats—for so long the party of slavery, segregation, and bigotry—are now the party of African Americans, racial minorities generally, and civil rights. Republicans—who were born as a northern anti-slavery party—successfully absorbed the most racially prejudiced faction of the southern electorate by the means of their Southern Strategy. Despite these realignments, the core commitments of an American have not changed. They have little to do with how you wave the flag or whether your recited the Pledge of Allegiance (complete with 1950s era emendations) every day in elementary school. Instead, they are about whether you are willing to stand up for the freedom and dignity of all people living on American soil. May we all be as brave and loyal as the men and women of the Union and stare down injustice throughout our land.

David R. Mortensen

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

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