by William Trollinger
“Redemption.” In Christian theology, it is a powerful and hopeful term referring to the deliverance from sin and its consequences. But in the context of U.S. history, “Redemption” is a word that has much less positive connotations.
Thursday night I gave a Ohio Humanities lecture in Peninsula, Ohio, a lovely village nestled in the woods between Cleveland and Akron. Hosted by the Peninsula Foundation, I spoke in the historically preserved G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) Hall, which features, among other things, a very large photograph of Abraham Lincoln.
The setting was quite appropriate, given that my lecture was entitled “Statues, Flags, and the Ongoing Battle over the Meaning of the Civil War.” This is a topic which has become very hot in the last few years, thanks in good part to two horrific events:
- June 17 2015. Charleston SC. Dylan Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and sat with a small Bible study group for 40 minutes. And then, during prayer, he pulled out a handgun and killed nine people, explaining “You blacks are killing white people and raping white women every day.” An examination of the website Roof created found a racist manifesto plus photos of Roof with Confederate flags.
- August 12 2017. Charlottesville VA. In response to the city council’s resolution to remove Charlotteville’s Robert E. Lee statue, angry white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members marched into town for a Unite the Right rally. Opponents gathered, and a Nazi sympathizer drove his car into the counter-protestors, killing one and wounding nineteen others.
As I noted in Peninsula, there are over 1500 Confederate monuments and memorials in the United States. They are all over the place in the South, particularly (but not only) in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Interestingly, most of these statues were not erected immediately after the Civil War, but, instead, were put up in the years between 1880 and 1920. These were the years after Reconstruction, when Southern whites reasserted their complete political and economic supremacy over African-Americans, creating a system in which segregation was the law of the land, black people were kept from voting, and black labor had been reduced to near-slave status. And when blacks gave even a hint that they were not fully subservient in body and in mind, lynching often followed.
Confederate monuments were a central feature of this system. As the American Historical Association pointed out in its powerful 2017 “Statement on Confederate Monuments,” these monuments
to the Confederacy were intended, in part, to obscure the terrorism required to overthrow Reconstruction, and to intimidate African Americans politically and isolate them from the mainstream of public life.
Explicitly borrowing from Christian theology, the leaders who engineered the reassertion of white dominance in the South referred to their policy as “Redemption.” The sins of Reconstruction – particularly, the sins of black political participation and economic freedom – were now purged. Paraphrasing Isaiah 1:18, the South – purged of its Reconstruction sins – was once again “white as snow.”
The South had been fully redeemed by 1915, when D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation appeared. This appalling cinematic masterpiece tells the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction: happy slaves, unnecessary war, northern repression after the war, thoroughly corrupt and incompetent blacks in Southern state legislatures, and rapacious blacks roaming the land looking for white women. But then comes Redemption, thanks in good part to the Ku Klux Klan. The Klansmen restore sexual order (capturing and lynching the prospective black rapist) while also using military force to re-establish political order in the form of Southern white dominance.
Religious order was also restored. In one of the strangest scenes in American film history, Birth of a Nation ends with a image of Jesus superimposed over a group of celebratory white people. He appears to be placing his blessing on the re-establishment of white racial dominance in the South. Redemption, indeed.
100 years later, are we still here? Is the Christian Right Jesus giving his blessing to voter suppression and racist tweets and white supremacy?