Tag Archives: Mississippi

What the Civil War Can Teach us About Patriotism

Placing flags on Union soliders' graves at Vicksburg National Military Park. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a a last and necessary resort.

Flags on Union soldiers’ graves at Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a last and necessary resort.

The Fourth of July holiday weekend is upon us, and, in keeping with tradition, Americans will be observing the founding of their nation as only they can: by searing woolly mammoth flanks (on sale at Walmart) on their Realtree-decaled, 124 propane tanked, patio grill-a-sauruses to commemorate the time Chuck Norris, a jellybean-grenade launching Ronald Reagan, a laser cannon-armed cyborg George Washington, and a velociraptor-mounted, open-carrying, tax-cutting Jesus teamed up to win American independence from the overbearing colonial clutches of the gay-communist-British-liberal-anti-freedom zombies.

Okay, perhaps that’s not quite historically accurate, but the basic tenets of Independence Day are nonetheless there. The Fourth of July is the official holiday for American patriotism, and citizens of the U.S. are a very patriotic people. But in the spirit of Independence Day, it’s worth examining what we mean when we celebrate “patriotism.”

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Confederate Echoes: The Ugly History Behind Questioning Obama’s Patriotism

Former Republican Mayor of New York City thinks that there colored boy is only three-fifths "Murican.

Rudy Giuliani, the Former Republican Mayor of New York City, apparently thinks that thar colored boy don’t love ‘Murica.

Remember when everyone liked Rudolph Giuliani? The former “Mayor of the World” was, after all, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Yeah, I remember that too. But Giuliani is also a right-wing dunce.

Case in point: he recently stirred the endlessly bubbling American political chamber pot when, at a private gathering of like-minded conservative Oompa Loompas held for Wisconsin Koch Brothers organ-grinder monkey Scott Walker, he questioned President Barack Obama’s patriotism. “I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani babbled, “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” Translation: Obama’s black different; we’re not; Anti-Americanism follows. But questioning a political rival’s love of country is an old American political tactic, and it hasn’t gotten any less vile over time.  Continue reading

Why Black Lives Still Matter: An American Saga

The notion that #BlackLivesMatter became one of the defining social protest calls of 2014.

The notion that #BlackLivesMatter became one of the defining social protest calls of 2014.

The year 2014 was an especially tumultuous year if you happened to be a black person or a police officer in the United States. The high-profile killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice revealed the continued high cost of existing-while-black in America, while the cold-blooded murder of New York police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos by a mentally ill sociopath named Ismaaiyl Brinsley on December 20 has left New York City’s police force embroiled in a dispute with the city’s black community over issues of police safety and the NYPD’s checkered history with people of color. As the Big Apple’s police force tries to move forward in the wake of the brutal slaying of two of its own, the tensions between minorities and cops that so ravaged America in 2014 once again bubbled to the surface of the national consciousness.

But amidst the tensions in New York, a small group of protesters braved the cold and debauchery of New Year’s Eve to hold a vigil reminding America that #BlackLivesMatter. Because, above all else, the historical association of blackness with crime in America is at the heart of the controversies between police and minority communities that wracked the nation in 2014. This piece will explain why the interconnectedness of blackness and criminality in U.S. history continued to fuel tensions between police and the black community in 2014.

As the bodies of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice lie alongside those of thousands of other black men taken out by America’s ivory-wrapped justice system, one thing remains abundantly clear: the U.S. has moved beyond the need to have a “conversation” about race and has lunged head-first into the intervention deep end. You can’t converse about something that you don’t understand, and what far too many white Americans don’t understand is that, in the land where All Men are Created Equal, black lives have always mattered less than white ones. In the U.S., blackness has historically been associated with criminality, and to the nation’s trigger-happy white majority, crime still wears a permanent blackface. Citizens like Brown, Garner, and Rice were killed because they were perceived as the worst kind of threat to white America: a black one. Continue reading

The Military and the Search for Heroes in American Culture

American soldiers deserve the utmost respect, but that doesn't mean that American shouldn't question the government that sends them to war.

American soldiers deserve the utmost respect, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question the organizations that send them to war.

Do you support the troops? In some respects, that’s a trick question. After all, how could you not support the troops? With each passing day, thousands of men and women in the American military put their lives on the line in far-off places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, and even in a series of little-known strategic training operations in Africa — all in the name of protecting American freedom. And while these brave individuals are enduring all sorts of physical and psychological dangers, the rest of us are, well, not. The current American military consists of voluntary forces, and let’s be honest: most of us don’t want to volunteer for a job that involves getting shot, blown up, or other similarly unpleasant experiences that involve significant bodily harm.

And so, to make up for the fact that most of us aren’t in the military, we support the troops. But what, exactly, does that even mean? Of course, in our minds, we’re thanking them for their service; we’re wishing them the best of luck and the best of safety on their respective missions, and we might even stick a “support our troops” magnet on our vehicles. But other than vague, non-action-oriented displays of emotion, what can we really do to support the troops? Well, we hold benefit concerts; we send soldiers care packages, and we donate our frequent flyer miles.

Those are all good things to do, of course, but we as civilians also do something else for the troops that, however well-intended, is also deeply problematic: we double down on the platitudes by calling them “heroes” to the point where we run the risk of stifling legitimate criticism of U.S. military interventions. Furthermore, our platitudes create a culture of soldier worship that oversimplifies the complex beliefs and experiences of the people in uniform.

In a recent piece titled “Stop Thanking me for my Service,” Rory Fanning, a veteran of two deployments to Afghanistan, argues that the “heroism” of military service is often fraught with horrible experiences that are no cause for celebration, and that the American public usually isn’t aware of these experiences when they mouth patriotic platitudes to the troops. “[W]hat about that term ‘hero’?” Fanning writes, “[m]any veterans reject it, and not just out of Gary Cooperesque modesty either. He continues by noting that, “most veterans who have seen combat, watched babies get torn apart, or their comrades die in their arms, or the most powerful army on Earth spend trillions of dollars fighting some of the poorest people in the world for 13 years feel anything but heroic.” Here, Fanning emphasizes that in order to make soldiers into automatic heroes, you have to ignore the ugly realities of war, and you have to ignore the fact that not everything your government sends its soldiers to do is going to be for a worthy cause.

Fanning further quotes journalist Cara Hoffman, who writes that:

Hero’ refers to a character, a protagonist, something in fiction, not to a person, and using this word can hurt the very people it’s meant to laud. While meant to create a sense of honor, it can also buy silence, prevent discourse, and benefit those in power more than those navigating the new terrain of home after combat. If you are a hero, part of your character is stoic sacrifice, silence. This makes it difficult for others to see you as flawed, human, vulnerable, or exploited.

Building on Hoffman’s point about the super-human notion of idealized heroism, Fanning notes that, “Thank yous to heroes discourage dissent, which is one reason military bureaucrats feed off the term.” So why do we want to overly hero-ize American soldiers? Part of this tendency stems from the fact that we want to legitimize American military operations. We want to believe that when America fights, it does so for the right reasons, because it’s the best hope for freedom in the world — or so we think. But there’s another reason why we want to turn soldiers into heroes, one linked to the paradoxical ideal that NOT serving in the military is an inherent right for free Americans. Indeed, historically, compulsory military service has been associated with unfree, dictatorial governments the world over. In the eyes of many Americans throughout history, being forced to fight negated the very idea of American freedom. After all, if the state could force you to die in its name, how could you ever truly be free?

On the other side of that argument is the idea — so often quoted on sanctimonious bumper stickers everywhere — that “freedom isn’t free,” and that those who want to live free better be prepared to die free. But it’s this very conflict — between the idea that military service embodies freedom and the idea that military service can also be an example of state tyranny — that explains Americans’ complicated need to make soldiers into heroes. By doing so, we make their service compulsory in the sense that they act as vessels into which we pour all of our idealized notions of American freedom and goodness. They MUST serve so that we don’t have to; they bear burdens that we assume to be necessary. The problem is that those soldiers who deviate, however justifiably, from this idealized notion of heroism, such as Bowe Bergdahl, face accusations of treason, and the powerful interests who send them to distant war-zones remain in the shadows — unexamined; unquestioned; unhinged.

This cartoon from Harper's Weekly demonstrates how Confederate Conscription made its own heroes and villains.

This cartoon from Harper’s Weekly demonstrates how Confederate Conscription made its own heroes and villains.

In an era when military service is voluntary, those willing to die for their country (regardless of the worthiness of the respective cause they’re dying for) seem to embody a heroism that civilians can’t live up to. And on one level, this is certainly true: those in arms are indeed brave and they deserve our gratitude. But when we associate military service with automatic heroism, we legitimize a type of cultural totalitarian nationalism that stifles legitimate criticisms of military operations and the government and private interests that instigate them. If the soldiers who are the agents of the state (and its private sector partners) are sanctified as heroes, then the actions of the interests for which they fight also become unassailable. This is a dangerous development that has emerged in previous eras, and it was just as controversial then as it should be now.

Consider the conflict that defined modern American identity as we know it today: the Civil War. In April of 1862, the Confederate States of America instituted the first national draft in U.S. history, commonly known as the Confederate Conscription Act, to fight a war with the North that had already gone on longer than many on both sides had expected. Reception to the Conscription Act was decidedly mixed throughout the South. Some fighting-age men willingly acceded to it and joined the Confederate ranks to avoid being hunted down by conscript officers. Others, however, deserted the ranks or went into hiding to avoid compulsory service. Many believed that conscription favored the poor while exempting the rich from fighting (which wasn’t entirely true), and others maintained that the state had no right to force free men to fight in its name.

But so important was conscription to the southern war effort that Confederate president Jefferson Davis vigorously defended it in a December 26, 1862 speech in his home state of Mississippi. Addressing a crowd in the state capital of Jackson, Davis stated that the Confederate government needed to draft men to serve so that, “the men who had stayed at home — who had thus far been sluggards in the cause — should be forced, likewise, to meet the enemy.” The Conscription Act declared that all men from the ages of 18-35 were liable for military service, and Davis took pains to emphasize that donning the Rebel uniform was intimately linked to the Confederate struggle for freedom from the Union. “[W]ill you be slaves; will you consent to be robbed of your property…will you renounce the exercise of those rights with which you were born and which were transmitted to you by your fathers?” Davis asked. “I feel that in addressing Mississippians the answer will be that their interests, even life itself, should be willingly laid down on the altar of their country.”

This was an invocation for blood sacrifice to the Confederate cause, in which soldiers would die “on the altar of their country” so that the nation could live. But there was another issue that fueled Davis’ sanctification of military service: property. When Davis warned Mississippians that capitulation to the Union would result in them being “robbed of your property,” he was talking about slaves. Indeed, the Confederate quest for national independence was predicated on the notion that the South had the right to preserve slavery, and the most vociferous cheerleaders for southern independence just so happened to be men like Davis — men who were wealthy and powerful slaveholders. By turning military service into an act of devotion and heroism, Davis and other defenders of the Old South’s slave society made questioning the southern war effort — and, by extension, the powerful interests behind it — an act of treason. Those who fought in the Confederate armies for the South’s vested interests were labeled heroes, but those who objected were unpatriotic cowards who “skulk from the duties they owe their country.”

The Confederate experience with military service — as an either a heroic act of national devotion or a potential pawn of vested interests — rings loudly in modern America’s tendency to label all military service as heroism and all dissent as unpatriotic. As Steven Salaita writes, the powerful interests that run the U.S. in don’t necessarily have altruistic motives when they tout the heroism of American soldiers. “The terms we use to define the troops — freedom-fighters, heroic, courageous — are synecdoche for the romance of American warfare: altruistic, defensive, noble, reluctant, ethical,” Salaita writes. But now, as in the past, the service of individual soldiers can be admirable even as the greater cause remains less so. And the causes for which American armies fight, now as in the past, are rarely one-hundred percent pure-hearted.

The soldiers fighting in the Middle East can rest comfotably at night knowing that America's mailboxes wholeheartedly support the military.

U.S. soldiers fighting in the Middle East can rest comfortably at night knowing that America’s mailboxes wholeheartedly support the military.

Whether it concerns defense contractors, oil oligopolies, or, in a previous era, slaveholders, war is profitable, and profits don’t discriminate between noble and ignoble motives. “Multinational corporations have a profound interest in cheerleading for war and in the deification of those sent to execute it. For many of these corporations, the U.S. military is essentially a private army dispatched around the world as needed to protect their investments and to open new markets,” Salaita writes. This is not to say that soldiers don’t fight out of patriotic motives in the name of national defense; rather, he cautions Americans to always critically assess why their military fights, and he warns that viewing soldiers as heroes in the service of the American empire makes such critical evaluations impossible. “If we recognize that the troops are in fact human beings, then we simultaneously accept that they are too complex to be reduced to patriotic ephemera,” Salaita observes.

Now, we should continue to “support the troops.” They are our friends, family members, and fellow Americans who shoulder a heavy burden by choosing to enlist, and their efforts are to be commended. That said, however, we should also remember that soldiers are nonetheless human beings who embody all of the hopes, fears, contradictions, and yes, dissent that characterizes the broader human experience. To be sure, soldiers can engage in great acts of heroism, but making them into default heroes ignores both the complexity of military service as well as the fact that soldiers can serve interests that shouldn’t be exempt from criticism.

The Confederate experience during the Civil War demonstrated how a critical stand against militant patriotism can be an act of legitimate dissent that sheds light on the bigger issues about war and the powerful interests behind it. When Jefferson Davis urged Mississippians to sacrifice themselves “on the altar of their country,” he referred to a country that served the interests of the slaveholding oligarchs. Thus, the men who fought in the southern armies fought bravely for a rather ignoble cause, and those who evaded conscription functionally refused to serve that cause — and that’s worth noting.

Americans would do well to remember the past before jumping mindlessly onto the “support our troops” bandwagon without ever considering the broader consequences of conflating military service with mythical heroism. Somewhere, in a deep, dark, possibly undisclosed location, executives from Triple Canopy, Academi (formerly known as Blackwater), and DynCorp are also calling the troops heroes — and that should concern every American.

Nelson Mandela and the Legacy of American Apartheid

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002  International Aids Conference.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002 International Aids Conference.

This week one of the towering figures of twentieth century politics passed from his mortal coil. Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, died at the age of 95, leaving a legacy that stretches beyond the limits of South Africa and even his own lifetime. Heck, Mandela’s legacy is one that challenges what had been among the core ideologies of the modern world dating back at least to the 18th century: white supremacy as practiced via the supposed inherent right of European powers to subjugate non-white, non-European peoples.

Mandela was, of course, the first black president of South Africa, a nation whose modern history is framed largely through the prism of its brutal system of racial segregation known as Apartheid. Mandela spent 27 years in prison as punishment for his lifelong fight against institutional racism, and his greatness as a symbol of human resistance in the face of adversity is now forever sealed. I mean, Morgan Freeman even played Mandela in a movie, and if that doesn’t attest to the South African president’s greatness, nothing else will.

I kid, of course. Mandela stands with Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Ghandi, as one of the most influential world players in the battle against racism and segregation in the modern era. So what exactly was Apartheid, and why was it so awful? Legal historian Steven Ratner offers a good, comprehensive definition:

Apartheid was the system of racial discrimination and separation that governed South Africa from 1948 until its abolition in the early 1990s. Building on years of discrimination against blacks, the National Party adopted apartheid as a model for separate development of races, though it served only to preserve white superiority. It classified persons as either white, Bantu (black), colored (mixed race), or Asian. Its manifestations included ineligibility from voting, separate living areas and schools, internal travel passes for blacks, and white control of the legal system.

Take some time to absorb that for a second: “a model for the separate development of the races.” If you’ve ever studied American history, for example, you might be aware that such institutionalized racism was not unique to South Africa. And how did South Africa’s racist regime go about instituting Apartheid? Policymic has a good roundup of the policies that built Apartheid:

Blacks were denied citizenship and the right to vote. They were forcibly relocated into impoverished reservations. People of color were barred from operating businesses or owning land inside white areas, which comprised most of the country. Sexual relations or marriage between people of color and whites was strictly forbidden. Racial segregation was enforced in public areas, including schools, hospitals, trains, beaches, bridges, churches and theaters. To enforce apartheid, the government often resorted to police brutality, the imprisonment and assassination of political dissidents, and the murder of black protesters.

The type of racial segregationist program known as “Apartheid” in South Africa, however, was far from limited to that country alone. Racial segregation in the name of white supremacy was a guiding principle that came to characterize the age of discovery, when European powers explored, settled, and colonized other parts of the world from the 15th century all the way up the 20th century. What Mandela fought against in South Africa reverberated throughout the world, as long-subjugated groups in former and current colonized nations fought for the equality that had been denied them in large part based on the color of their skins. It wasn’t an easy fight: as Mandela’s life demonstrates, those who have the power to dominate others won’t give it up that power easily, and they aren’t shy about enforcing their power through violence and intimidation.

The nation that emerged at the top of the world power heap by the mid-20th century was the United States, and nearly all of America’s history as a modern nation involved a reckoning with its own form of American Apartheid that manifested in the system of racial slavery that was enshrined in its Constitution and, over time, created one of the most racially divided societies in modern history. This development was all the more ironic since it took place in a country that supposedly cherished the notion that “All men are created equal.”

This American Apartheid echoed through the centuries via a Civil War fought over the right to enslave black bodies. After slavery’s demise, American Apartheid took the shape of the racial terrorism of Reconstruction. By the late 19th and early 20th century, it became institutionalized in the barbaric Jim Crow system that witnessed the smoldering stench of immolated flesh as lynching swept the American South and African-Americans were relegated to nation-wide second-class citizenship. American Apartheid only finally began to collapse in the mid-20th century, the same era during which Mandela waged his fight, following a sustained attack by Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. But as recent attacks on minority voting rights indicate, Apartheid casts a long shadow in America and throughout the world.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

America’s reckoning with its own apartheid explains why many elements in the U.S., up until very recently, viewed Nelson Mandela as a racial terrorist rather than a freedom fighter. As Sagar Jethani of Policymic notes, American conservatives long-defended South Africa’s anti-communist, white minority government in the name of anti-communist zeal. Mandela’s support for liberal policies, including worker’s rights and social justice, when combined with his early support for violence against the Apartheid government before he embraced peaceful resolutions, did not endear him to the American Right.

Over at Student Activism, for example, Angus Johnston reminds us how in 1986, William F. Buckley, the silver-spooned National Review founder and “intellectual” godfather of modern American conservatism, vehemently opposed universal suffrage in South Africa. “The government will not … grant political equality to everyone in South Africa. Nor should it,” Buckley wrote. “It is preposterous at one and the same time to remark the widespread illiteracy in South Africa and to demand the universal franchise.” Buckley had already made it abundantly clear that he opposed racial equality in the American South, both on prejudicial grounds and because he associated equality with a threat to established political and economic hierarchies, hence his distaste for South African universal suffrage.

In the 1980s, American conservative luminaries like Jesse Helm (R-NC), Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Phil Gramm (R-TX), and Dick Cheney (R-Hell) followed Buckley by opposing the Congressional Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed sanctions on South Africa.

For many Americans, not just conservatives, the specter of racial equality also suggested economic equality and the threat to capitalism that would supposedly undermine social hierarchies across the land. Race and class have always been inextricably linked in American history, which helps explain why American conservatives in particular viewed Mandela as a threat: he tapped into old domestic fears that conflated anti-racism with economic and social revolution.

Proponents of American Apartheid have defended racial segregation since the beginning, but they’ve been at their most defensive when white supremacy, with all of its economic benefits, has been explicitly challenged. Such was the case during the run-up to southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860-61. As historian Charles Dew notes, southern secession commissioners (whom I discussed in an earlier post) charged with promoting secession throughout the South endorsed slavery and the Apartheid that bolstered slavery as a justification for the South’s forming the Confederate States of America to fend off northern anti-slavery aggression.

Commissioner William L. Harris of Mississippi, for example, complained that the North demanded “equality between the white and negro races, under our Constitution; equality in representation, equality in the right of suffrage…equality in the social order.” Harris warned that Mississippi would rather “see the last of her [white] race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile,” rather than be “subjected to…social equality with the negro race.”* Indeed, the Confederate South fought America’s greatest and bloodiest revolution, the Civil War, in order to preserve American Apartheid, and they didn’t stop defending racial segregation after the Confederacy’s demise.

During the Jim Crow era, as lynching and black disenfranchisement swept across the South and other parts of the country, defenders of American Apartheid continued to echo the sentiments of their Confederate forebears. In March of 1900, for example, the mind-blowingly racist South Carolina Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman claimed on the Senate floor that the lynching of blacks was necessary to uphold racial segregation. “We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will,” Tillman stated. “We have never believed him to be equal to the white man,” he continued, “and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” Rarely had Apartheid produced so blunt a spokesman. For Tillman and his ilk, racial equality meant social equality, which they believed would upend the entire American white supremacist socio-economic order.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America's most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America’s most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

Even after the success of the Civil Rights movement, certain segments of American society nonetheless held on to their defence of American Apartheid, particularly in the 1980s when violence erupted in South Africa. Jesse Helms, for example, the Republican senator and general scumbag from North Carolina, defended South African Apartheid in large part because it reminded him of the American Apartheid system in which he had been born and raised.

As Eric Bates of Mother Jones reported in June 1995, Helms “grew up in a segregated world not unlike the one of apartheid,” and this upbringing gave him “a view of a fundamentalist Christian society in which everyone is not welcome” and which resembled “South Africa of 20 years ago.” With a lifetime of pro-segregationist ideology informing his thought, Helms filibustered U.S. sanctions against South Africa in 1986, claiming that “the Soviet Union is orchestrating upheaval in all of Africa.” By supporting South African Apartheid on grounds that it would supposedly bring about communist revolution, Helms followed a long tradition in which American segregationists, from Confederate ideologues to lynching proponents, linked racial equality with social revolution. American conservatives’ mixed ideas about Nelson Mandela’s legacy reflect a reluctance to reckon with America’s own historical Apartheid past.

With Mandela’s passing, here’s hoping that Apartheid in any part of the world will continue to be a shameful part of the human past. But as U.S. history shows, despite Americans’ long-held claims of American Exceptionalism,” Apartheid has never been limited to South Africa. In fact, its has been a reality of the modern world and has manifested in nearly every continent over the last few centuries. This is not the kind of legacy that goes away quickly, and this fact makes Mandela’s legacy all the more remarkable and worth continuing.

* See Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 85, 89.

Southern Conservatism, the Confederacy, and the Legacy of Slavery

1861 U.S. Coast Survey Showing Prevalence of Slavery in Southern Counties.

1861 U.S. Coast Survey Showing Prevalence of Slavery in Southern Counties.

At the Vault History blog, Rebecca Onion posted a really cool map of the United States in 1861 (shown above), which uses data from the 1860 census to determine the percentage of enslaved people per county in the southern states.  Onion explains that:

The map, which shades counties based on the percentage of total inhabitants who were enslaved, shows what a range there was in levels of Southern enslavement. Some counties, the map explains, “appear comparatively light … this arises from the preponderance of whites and free blacks in the large towns in these counties.” The population of Orleans Parish, La., in one example, was 8.9 percent enslaved. Places that were rural but were located in mountainous areas devoid of plantations were similarly light-shaded: The people of Harlan County, Ky., were 2.3 percent enslaved.

Meanwhile, a dark belt of counties bordering the Mississippi River held more than 70 percent of their residents in slavery, with Tensas Parish, La., at 90.8 percent and Washington County, Miss., at 92.3 percent.

Historians have noted correlations between the percentage of slaves held in different parts of the South and the general enthusiasm for secession in 1860-1861.  Using these conclusions we can make some broad generalizations about support for the Confederacy in different southern states that are reasonably reliable…to a point. Onion notes, for example:

Though this map was simple, it showed the relationship between states’ commitment to slavery and their enthusiasm about secession, making a visual argument about Confederate motivations.

Again, this generalization is reasonably accurate, but as always, history is far more complicated than that. Take Mississippi for example: in 1860-61, some of its slaveholders, among the wealthiest people in the nation, voted for the Conservative Union ticket in 1860. Yet, other Mississippi slaveholders voted for immediate secession from the Union, and they ultimately won the day when Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union in January 1861.

The supposed correlation between slaveholding and support for secession really gets at a bigger issue in southern history that is still pondered over in contemporary American politics: the connection between race and conservatism in the South. Shortly before the 2012 election, for example, Michael Lind — and a whole lot lot of other political watchers — noted that the current conservative Republican South basically consists of the Old Confederacy, while the current bastion of Democratic Party strength lies in the old Union states that put down the slaveholders’ rebellion. Lind notes:

Now that they dominate the Republican Party, Southern conservatives are using it to carry out the same strategies that they promoted during the generations when they controlled the Democratic Party, from the days of Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren to the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s.  From the 19th century to the 21st, the oligarchs of the American South have sought to defend the Southern system, what used to be known as the Southern Way of Life.

Notwithstanding slavery, segregation and today’s covert racism, the Southern system has always been based on economics, not race.  Its rulers have always seen the comparative advantage of the South as arising from the South’s character as a low-wage, low-tax, low-regulation site in the U.S. and world economy.  The Southern strategy of attracting foreign investment from New York, London and other centers of capital depends on having a local Southern workforce that is forced to work at low wages by the absence of bargaining power.

The key word in Lind’s analysis is “conservatism.” With some very notable historical exceptions that have generally proven a larger ruling trend, the South has been, and continues to be, dominated by political conservatism. In terms of the South, you can’t understand conservatism without recognizing the intimate connection between race and economics. This connection drove conservatism during the buildup to the Civil War, and it still retains a strong legacy on contemporary Southern conservatism.

As Corey Robin notes in The Reactionary Mind, his brilliant revisionist study of the modern Right, “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument for why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, to govern themselves or the polity.” Thus, wherever there are movements seeking to expand freedom and agency to those lower orders in society, thereby expanding social agency beyond the sphere of the traditional ruling elite, conservatives will be there to, in the famous words of William F. Buckley Jr., yell “Stop!”

Nowhere was this more true than in the slaveholding South: there, powerful planters wanted to retain their system of racially based slave labor against the perceived growing political power of the anti-slavery North. But different groups of southern conservatives were divided over how to do that, and therein lies the answer to why some planters supported secession and some remained tied to the Union. Both groups, Secessionists and Conditional Unionists (those who believed that secession should only be a last resort, and that slavery was better protected in the Old Union) were conservatives. They both believed in the inherent right of a chosen few to benefit from a racially-based slave labor system. But the Secessionists thought that after Abraham Lincoln’s election, the slave system could best be protected by a new, breakaway nation, the Confederate States of America. Conditional Unionists, however, thought that slavery would better flourish under the Union. The latter proved right in the long run.

The legacy of slavery lives on in the political environment of the contemporary conservative South. Of course, southerners today don’t support slavery. But, the conservative South does support an economic system weighted almost entirely in employers’ favor. As Lind writes:

Anything that increases the bargaining power of Southern workers vs. Southern employers must be opposed, in the interest of the South’s regional economic development model.  Unions, federal wage and workplace regulations, and a generous, national welfare state all increase the bargaining power of Southern workers, by reducing their economic desperation.  Anti-union right-to-work laws, state control of wages and workplace regulations, and an inadequate welfare state all make Southern workers more helpless, pliant and dependent on the mercy of their employers.  A weak welfare state also maximizes the dependence of ordinary Southerrners on the tax-favored clerical allies of the local Southern ruling class, the Protestant megachurches, whose own lucrative business model is to perform welfare functions that are performed by public agencies elsewhere, like childcare.

The need to maintain the social and political dominance of privileged elites, and therefore stymie attempts by the lower orders to assert their agency, is a direct historical legacy of the old slave system, which was the ultimate manifestation of conservative dominance. Thus, Lind is partially right when he observes that “the Southern system is essentially about class and only incidentally about race.” In the South, the “lower orders” have historically consisted mostly of African-Americans. This created an intertwined relationship between race and class that exists to this day. Hence, southern conservatives continue their long fight against any agency on behalf of workers that might curtail employers’ power and pass restrictive voting laws that are blatantly designed to suppress racial minority groups that traditionally do not vote the conservative Republican ticket. Conservatives do these things because in the South, and indeed, in most of the United States, lower-income groups tend to be minority populations, especially African-Americans.

These are the groups most likely to use their votes to increase their freedom and agency relative to the ruling business and political elites. The fear of  a determined majority challenging the power of a much smaller ruling minority terrified southern conservatives of the 1860s, and contemporary southern conservatives still fear this expansion of power to the lower orders. In many ways, of course, the issues have changed, but in other ways, the fundamental issues of who wields power –  and why – remain as potent as when those slaveholding delegates voted to take Mississippi out of the Union and into a cataclysmic Civil War.