The Civil War was many things: a referendum, a reckoning, a revolution, a restoration. The match that lit the fuse to the powder keg was slavery; it was not a new fight, but one that had been simmering since The Revolution. If slavery was the match, the actual powder was the right of States to determine their own destinies, within the confines of the Union. Even after it was over, the shards of the conflict still rained down on the nation, and do so even to this day. The Civil War did not begin in 1861, and it did not end in 1865. The historical events from Fort Sumter to Appomattox are well known; the underlying forces, which continue to this day, are less well understood.
Slavery did not begin with the American Colonies, though they had their own peculiar flavor of it. No, slavery went back to Biblical times and before. Even before Darwin would codify the forces that were natural and artificial selection, humankind had been operating along those lines, with one group of humans invariably subjugating another group to perform the work of survival. That group, which claimed superior knowledge, superior wealth, superior weapons, superior skills, would invariably use that superiority to subjugate those who could not compete. In a “benign” form, it was merely the takeover of lands and the levying of tribute or taxes; in its darkest form, such subjugation was the stripping of human beings of their dignity and freedom, impressing them into the service of their masters. When once a people were reduced from humans to mongrels, they were then free to be treated no better than animals.
Such it was that the original Thirteen Colonies were rife with the stink of it, importing slaves from Africa or the West Indies, or attempting to enslave the native population, all in the name of increasing wealth. Though the initial investment was high, the slaves were not paid, and worked harder and for longer than paid men would have given the same deplorable conditions. Over time, the investment paid for itself, especially when slaves bred, adding to pool of available workers for free, or making extra slaves that could be sold for a handsome profit. As all this went on, the slave owners chafed under the oppression of a foreign master, the King of England, and eventually took up arms against him. Revolution would bring freedom for the slave holder, but it would be denied the slave, and their worth even became codified into the Constitution, setting their value as a fraction of a “person.” Though we celebrate the Founding Fathers as great men, and they were, the stain of refusing to abolish slavery when they had a chance lies across their good works. The refusal to deal with the issue of slavery was a compromise, to keep the thirteen contentious allies united and make them one nation. It would be left to future generations to take up the matter.
All this would begin to come to a head in 1860, with the election of Abraham Lincoln, with the South seeing this as a direct affront and an attack on slavery, even though Lincoln had espoused no great need to abolish it. This would lead to the slow but inevitable secession of Southern states, and the rending of the still infant nation into to two polar opposites. The Confederate States of America would make no pretense as to their notions of slavery being a right of States; the Union remained ambivalent about the issue, with Lincoln preferring to concentrate of the necessity of reuniting the fractured halves of the United States. With the outbreak of open hostilities in April 1861, the issue would have to be settled, once and for all. Four years of bloody fighting across nearly the full breadth of America, would see hundreds of thousands die, hundreds of thousand more be wounded, bereft of limbs, and still more left homeless and penniless, their lands ravaged and their spirit broken. All that might have been mended had Lincoln lived, but an assassin's bullet felled him, and created an atmosphere that would see Southern aspirations remain, though faded.
The rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the enforcement of segregation and Jim Crow laws, and the shifting of the balance of power in the Southern states would see slavery gone in deed, but not in spirit. The black was still a non-person to many, still pitiable and shabby, and would be treated as such, no matter what success any of them would achieve. The racial divide continued to permeate the nation, unwilling to give up its grip. The northern portion of the U.S. Would dither, rather than take a stand against its southern neighbors, as if a second national war would ignite on the spot. It was up to generals, and baseball owners, and businessmen, and priests, and civil rights workers to take up the task of trying to wipe free the stain of segregation, discrimination, and racism. Eventually, it became the purview of Presidents, and comprehensive civil rights legislation was pushed through Congress, attempting to, once-and-for-all, beat down the racial divide and provide true unity and equanimity.
While laws may have changed, and the government become emboldened, racism simply worked its way into the nooks and crannies of society, sequestered behind closed doors, save for the sporadic shows of Aryan pride and bigotry. There, in the dark, in old, gutted shacks, in stately homes, in boardrooms, in back rooms, it continued to fester. It was not until the advent of the Information Age and the adoption of the Internet as the newest mode of communication, that it saw light. Now, like-minded individuals, bent on reclaiming the “birthright” of America, could denounce blacks and other groups (Hispanics, homosexuals, et. al
Then, in 2008, their time came – a black man dared run for President. Now, racism could be brought into the spotlight, though most of the coverage received was of the perceived “reverse” racism that many an Obama supporter was purportedly showing. It even led to stories of horrific attacks on non-Obama supporters, most of which turned out to be made-up. Cartoons, dolls, signs, web sites... the profusion of vile and racist attacks against then-candidate Obama were sad enough to say the least. With his eventual election, the howls only increased, though the rhetoric shifted. One could not call the President of the United States a ni**er without being looked upon as the lowest of forms of life, but they could fill the air with other potent epithets to replace the true meaning of their words. So it was that President Obama became a Socialist, a Communist, a Fascist, an organizer, and agitator. They went so far as to claim he was not even an American, as if he had been snuck into the country for the express purpose of being elected to the highest seat in the land, to sow mayhem and confusion, and to light a black riot against whites.
America has certainly made great strides in race relations, but too much remains undone. Black men are still the largest subset of those incarcerated in our prisons. Blacks make up one of the larger percentages of the poor and homeless in this nation. Black women receive sub-standard prenatal and regular health care. Black-owned businesses are often underfunded and starved for capital. It is not enough for someone such as myself to work towards seeing all people as just that, people, when too many of my fellow countrymen would continue the age-old and tired practice of dividing everyone into groups. As a white man, I am the bearer of unspoken privilege, a privilege I deny at every opportunity, because there is no reason to believe I am better or worse than any other person. I reject the idea that somehow one “race” is superior to another; we are all human, all with our own strengths and weaknesses, our own predilections and foibles, our own history and personal views. Mine can be and should be, no better than anyone else's, especially where given equal opportunity. But therein lies the rub, for opportunity may be equal in the eyes of law, but it most certainly is not in the eyes of many Americans. There is too much of the jingoistic “bootstraps” mentality, as if to help those who are less fortunate or in need of a leg up is an inconvenience, and not a commandment from the God they claim to worship.
We cannot expect racism and bigotry to merely fall away of their own accord. For them to be struck from the human consciousness, we must take every opportunity to speak out against the inequities in human life, and do our level best to ensure that we are part of the solution, and not a repetition of the problem. We must denounce any who hold race up as a divider or measuring stick, no matter who they are, for they represent backward thinking. Humanity must always move forward, even though it means dragging along this dead weight of social distortion and inequity. If we continue our forward pace, and pick up speed, perhaps the last vestiges of our sordid past might begin to fall away, freeing us to take flight to the bright future that awaits a united humanity. Only time will tell.