Gettysburg is hallowed ground for all who love this country. It is the site of a defeat which ended any hope for a Confederate military victory, and at which Abraham Lincoln spoke of a new birth of freedom. It is a place that veterans of both sides began to gather both to remember their service and comrades but also to promote reconciliation between the North and the South.
But it has also become a place in recent years for neo-Confederates to gather, not to remember the new birth of freedom, but to arrogantly defile the site by spewing hate, proclaiming racism, while openly speaking of their hatred of the United States and love of the late Confederacy. Some drive around town and in front of the Soldier’s Cemetery in large and loud pickup trucks, sometimes blaring their horns, while flying large 3′ x 5′ Confederate Battle Flags flying as if to mock the Union soldiers buried there.
It is also interesting to note that many of these openly racist people are not from the South, nor do they have southern roots. They simply tend to be racist and anti-government and gather around the flag of the Confederacy. I remember having a beer with a man from upstate New York in a bar a year or so ago who said he was the chaplain for a Confederate reenactment unit (in uniform) and went on to discuss his hatred for the United States, as well as African Americans, and other non-white American citizens. Likewise on another visit an older couple who said they were from Georgia listened to me talk with my students in the Soldier’s Cemetery, and when I was finished with reading the Gettysburg Address, the man made sure that he told me that all people were not created equal.
But let me be clear, there are also Southerners who love this country very much, who when they come to Gettysburg to remember their fallen ancestors, do so with a reverence which is perfectly in keeping with the desire for reconciliation of the Southern veterans as who returned to Gettysburg in the decades after the war.
I was walking by one of the gift shops in town and noticed a t-shirt on display. The shirt was adorned with the Confederate Battle Flag and and the words “I will not be reconstructed and I don’t give a damn!”
To some that may seem like a simple snarky statement. However, when you understand what the phase really means it should leave you cold. In 1866 it became part of the lyrics of a song called Oh, I’m a Good ole Rebel, a song that has been recorded numerous times in the years since it was written.
It was a phase used by Southerners after the Civil War who opposed the process of reconstruction, opposed all civil rights for blacks, and pushed for the return of white rule, which they achieved in 1877 when Reconstruction ended. At that point nearly every hard fought for right of African Americans was reversed, suppressed, or made so difficult to use as to be effectively revoked. Those rights would not begin to be restored until 1954 when the Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education decision which overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1894. This ruling declared that the segregation laws and Black Codes of the Jim Crow era were unconstitutional. It took another ten years for Congress in the face of heated opposition to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
But among segregationists those rulings were reviled. Governors fought to keep African Americans from entering segregated public schools and universities, civil rights workers were attacked and sometimes killed, civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr were assassinated. Alabama governor George Wallace, who in his 1963 governor’s inauguration address proclaimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” ran on a segregationist platform in the 1968 election and won 13.53% of the popular vote. He won Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, while collecting 45 electoral votes. Interestingly enough, the demographics of Wallace’s supporters, heavily white male and lesser educated, were very much like those of current GOP nominee Donald Trump.
But I digress, yet the fact of the matter is that the open proclamation of the phrase I will not be reconstructed on a shirt displaying the flag of the republic that Confederate Vice President Alexander said, was founded on the superiority of the white race and subordination of the negro as slaves. They are the words of the KKK, the Red Shirts, and the White Leagues who used violence and terrorism to intimidate blacks and any of their white supporters.
So a a historian I will not attempt to silence those people’s free speech rights, as repugnant as I find them to be. But have to call their words what they are, a call for the return to Jim Crow and worse. They are meant to intimidate people, and I find that message evil, in fact it goes against everything that makes America great. Maybe those who say they will “make America great again” should take heed to the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and realize what really makes America great instead of spewing the hate of those who fought the propositions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at every turn, even to begin a bloody civil war.
So until tomorrow have a great Monday.