History, Civil Rights and the Original Cancel CultureRoundup
Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian and writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the author of the award-winning Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South and co-editor, with Matthew Hild, of Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power.
Chris Richardson, author of the Historical Dictionary of the Civil Rights Movement, is a former U.S. diplomat who served in Nigeria, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Spain. He is currently an immigration attorney from South Carolina.
All over the South – whether on military bases or in public squares – we have seen battles over the Confederacy and memorials to Confederates or post-Confederate White leaders. Those who oppose changing these memorials fear that history will become victim to an ever-consuming “cancel culture.”
Yet, the truth is that the initial movement to build these memorials to the Confederacy and its supposed “lost cause” were the original cancel culture. Between the end of the Confederacy in 1865 and the Whites-only segregationist governments that arose in the 1880s, lay ten years of biracial, radical Southern state governments that so challenged ideas of White supremacy that both the white North and white South united in erasing them from history.
Instead of merely cancelling these relics of racism, though, proponents of racial equality should dig deep into the wells of our history and embrace the legacy of those biracial coalitions during Reconstruction that fell victim to the original cancel culture.
Immediately following emancipation, African Americans and poor and middle-class Whites worked together to create better, representative state governments. Hardly a perfect coalition (corruption did exist), they founded the Republican Party in every Southern state to wrestle power away from former-slaveholding Confederate Democrats. They elected Black senators, governors, congressmen and countless local leaders. They dedicated themselves to rebuilding the war-torn South, creating the South’s first universal, state-sponsored public education system and drafting the first post-slavery state constitutions. They championed the causes of laborers and fought to improve policing through the hiring of African-American officers. They enacted or attempted to enact land tenancy reforms, criminal justice and new systems for equitable taxation; they built the infrastructure, such as roads, rail tracks and canals, that the ravaged South so desperately needed.
Yet just as these biracial governments began to enact real change in the region, former slaveholders and their sons, increasingly aided by other Whites, began torturing and lynching Republicans, both Black and White, moderate and radical. In long-forgotten racist massacres like the ones in Hamburg, South Carolina and St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, armed Whites murdered thousands of Black men, women and children to overthrow these biracial Reconstruction governments, disenfranchising African Americans for generations. After former slaveholding Confederates and their heirs regained power, they passed laws establishing single-party White rule, imposing segregation and disenfranchising Black and even some poor White voters.
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