Monday, August 21, 2017
When I saw Nazi and Confederate flags mingling in Charlottesville, I thought about Victor Bernstein. And blood.
Until SS harassment forced him out in 1939, Bernstein covered Nazi Germany for the Jewish Telegraph Agency. After the war, he returned to cover the Nuremberg trials. In between, he investigated white supremacist violence in the American South.
In 1942, Bernstein interviewed Mississippi’s governor in the wake of a double lynching of two adolescent boys. Gov. Paul B. Johnson Sr., who had publicly condemned the killings, patted a stack of congratulatory letters on his desk. But he didn’t want a Yankee reporter to mistake his “law and order” stance for an endorsement of racial equality.
“You know we have certain prejudices down here,” he told Bernstein. They “are born in us. You know there’s nobody down here would sit down with a Negro and eat with him at the same table. You know we’d rather die first, don’t you?”
If Johnson’s anti-lynching rhetoric was politically risky, his stand for white supremacy was decidedly mainstream. Indeed, after Bernstein’s exposé embarrassed him, the governor lashed out at the media and doubled down on white supremacy. Anyone who supported civil rights, he complained, was “trying to make white people black and black people white.”
To a Jewish reporter who had survived a stint in Nazi Germany, many white Southerners seemed as preoccupied with blood purity as the master-race theorists of the Third Reich. Seventy-five years later, when neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville to protest the pending removal of a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Bernstein’s reflections on his trip south ring true: “The swastika is no prettier when entwined with magnolia blossoms.”
President Trump attempted to disentangle the two last week, when he claimed that “some very fine people” had gathered in Charlottesville to defend history and “culture.” Yet his fumbling attempts to distinguish “innocent” defenders of Southern heritage from violent white supremacists did not jibe with realities on the ground. That quite a few neo-Confederates felt at ease in a crowd chanting “Blood and Soil” should surprise no historian of the South, given how often the architects of white supremacy drew the color line in blood-red.
Apologists for slavery, secession and segregation have always preferred to explain away costly and violent crusades in terms of blood and honor. The Confederacy was a contentious political project, not an ethno-cultural movement, yet generations of white Southerners preferred to remember “the Lost Cause” as something that pumped through their veins.
The obsession with purity and preservation of that Southern blood fueled the white supremacist campaigns that followed, from disfranchisement pushes in the late 19th century to desegregation standoffs in the civil rights era. These efforts fed off sexually charged fears of what the alt-right now calls “white genocide.” Virginia played a central role in making blood the law of the land with the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which codified the “one-drop rule” by labeling anyone with any nonwhite ancestors as “colored,” expanded a program of involuntary sterilization and strengthened prohibitions on interracial marriage to keep white folks white, as Johnson might have put it.
Of course, the blood cult could not hide the reality of a multihued South, visible evidence that slaveholders and segregationists were never as committed to racial purity as they claimed. Blood mingled in the soil as well, as the battlefields of the Civil War became the killing fields of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. When the NAACP’s Walter F. White, the fair-skinned grandson of a Georgia slaveholder, passed as a white man to investigate Southern racial violence, he exposed Jim Crow’s brutality. But every time he crossed the color line unnoticed, he also mocked the arrogance and insanity of a racial system built on a blood lie.
Myths of a monolithic Anglo-Saxon South also obscured the region’s persistent diversity of background and belief. From its native inhabitants to immigrants and migrant workers, the South has never been as simple as black and white. And while loyalty to blood and soil long served as a tool to enforce white conformity, dissidents from the abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké to the Southern Poverty Law Center founder Morris Dees have always put self-evident truths before blood myths.
In the battle over the South’s history, blood ties and blood lies persist. Yankee professors are tempting targets, like the colleague whose student announced, “You may have a PhD in Southern history, but I have a Southern history.” Who needs the books when you have the blood?
Some white Southerners see truth-telling as racial betrayal. They expect Southern heritage to instill a conviction that the brutal legacy of white supremacy is a family secret, one that all white Southerners are blood-bound to protect.
Yet white Southerners who reject these blood lies are no more foreign to their home soil than the ideologies of eugenics and racial purity that fueled a white supremacist revolution, one that rewrote the Southern past to write black Southerners out — not just out of the region’s history, but out of its civic and social fabric.
Confederate nationalism — past, present and future — is white nationalism. It should surprise no one how easily the two intermingle in rhetoric, symbols and sentiment, not only in Charlottesville but anywhere protesters gather to lament an imperiled culture and a past that never was. Sorting one out from the other is no more possible than separating out the blood mixed and spilled so often across our shared past.