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Too Big for an Insane Asylum?

When his State seceded from the Union in 1860 South Carolina politician James L. Petrigru famously remarked, “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” South Carolina has long been considered by many to be the heart of racist sentiment in the South and in the nation, and it has often lived up to its reputation.

The Confederate flag that flew over the South Carolina statehouse and later in front of it was erected in 1961 (not 1861) in response to the challenge of the Civil Rights movement. As such it was never a symbol of pride in heritage, unless the heritage one took pride in was white supremacy – racism. It is therefore a symbol that ought to evoke shame, not pride. It is all the more shameful for those of us who knew what it stood for and never spoke against it.

Those of us outside the South tend to self-righteousness at the expense of Southerners; pointing to the well-known heritage of Southern racism. In doing so we demonstrate a selective memory that allows us to somehow dismiss racial discord and riots in places like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. The South has become our national scapegoat. We can point to the brutality that really was practiced in the South and pretend that because our own racism was (perhaps) less blatant, we are somehow absolved.

But we should not forget that Major League Baseball was not integrated until 1947, and then painfully. The armed services were not integrated until 1950. The school district in Topeka, Kansas (hardly what we would consider the Deep South) was still segregated in 1955. That’s not southern baseball or the southern armed services, or southern school districts. America as a nation has long practiced a systematic institutionalized racism. And the journey from an openly racist to a race-blind society is long and fraught with danger. W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1904 that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”[1] Now we are well into the Twenty-First century and many of my students tell me they don’t believe we will ever overcome the problem of racial division.

I tell them I hope they are wrong.

It seems that few know better than Southerners how regrettable their history of race relations is. And they are stepping up to move past it. Now it is the rest of us who are in denial. By an irony of history, it is South Carolina, the State that led the Confederacy to secession, that is showing us the way forward.

[1] W E B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Dover Thrift Editions (New York: Dover, 1994), v.

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