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Trent Lott and the Collapse of Southern Mythology

by Robert E. Bonner on Dec 25, 2002

With 2002 drawing to a close, the ghosts of Southern history have become important players in national politics. The fallout from Trent Lott’s tribute to Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat campaign has shared headlines with Justice Clarence Thomas’s emotional support of Virginia’s ban on cross-burning. The incoming governor of Georgia meanwhile ponders whether to endorse an earlier Confederate-inspired state flag or risk the wrath of his neo-Confederate supporters.

Such ghostly visitations are hardly new in a region whose history is suffused with guilt, pride and the divisive issue of race. But the haunting of southern politics has long had more to do with the living than with the dead. For nearly a century and a half, white southerners have shaped their region’s mythic past with specific political objectives uppermost in mind.

Former Confederates were among the first to evoke a politically useful past in adjusting to their defeat by the United States. A Richmond journalist, Edward Pollard, coined the term “The Lost Cause” in 1866, and he soon used this evocative label to distance the white South from secession and slavery. In the 1868 presidential campaign, Pollard insisted that rebellion and black servitude had only been means to the Confederacy’s real aims of limiting the federal government and guaranteeing white supremacy.

Praise for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, offered by Lott, as well as the cabinet members John Ashworth and Gail Norton, demonstrates the success of Lost Cause mythology in removing the stain of treason from the Confederate legacy. Within a generation, the gray ghosts of a mythic southern past became the glorious, whitewashed heroes. By the end of the nineteenth century, these Confederate leaders came to be associated less with what they actually did than with the courage and character they had mythically displayed by standing up for their convictions and resolutely paying the price.

In the nineteenth century former Confederates insisted that the cause of white supremacy might be raised from the dead by invoking the memory of fallen soldiers. But the civil-rights movement of the mid-20th century meant that the ghosts of the southern past had to be cleansed of racism as well as treason. Rather than offer apologies about race, Lost Cause adherents sought new allies beyond their own region.

For decades, the southern Democratic party, with the acquiescence of the North, defended white solidarity and presided over the institution of Jim Crow segregation. But the dismantling of Jim Crow in the 1960s changed this equation, just as it realigned political parties. In the process, racism became as discredited rhetorically as treason and slavery.

Segregationists were now not merely defending a romantic Lost Cause tragically doomed by their adversaries’ superior forces; they found themselves championing the morally indefensible. Caught on the wrong side of history, politicians such as Lott have invoked the white southern past through “code words” meant to pay homage to the Confederate past without invoking the cause of white supremacy.

In explaining his notorious tribute to Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign, Lott tried to employ the same strategy to redefine Dixiecrat ghosts that the Lost Cause had used to redefine the Confederacy. But removing race from the Dixiecrat agenda has proved far more difficult than removing slavery and treason from the Confederate cause.

Lott himself exposed the weakness of this attempt during his Pascagoula apology, when he turned from his earlier admiration for Thurmond-style limited government to boast of how he had brought national largesse to Mississippi. In doing so, he compromised his own supposed aversion to the federal government and, as a result, inevitably suggested that he was not talking about big government after all when he talked about those American “problems” that had followed Thurmond’s defeat.

In the short term, Lott’s fall from power exposes the dangers of blurring the romanticized ghosts of the 1860s with the more thoroughly discredited ghosts of segregation. Supporters of the Confederate flag, for instance, will likely redouble their efforts to associate the Southern Cross to the mini balls of the 1860s and to distance this volatile symbol as completely as possible from the water-hoses of the 1960s.

But there are still hard questions to be asked about whether the Lost Cause view of the Civil War can succeed in making the Dixiecrat past usable as well. The region’s sense of its own history has begun to change, as new attention is devoted to black southerners’ history before, during and after the Civil War. In the region that considers itself the most historically conscious part of the United States, battles over proud heritages and shameful legacies are likely to continue, but seen in new perspectives. And in a very real way, these will remind us that the past hardly ever intrudes upon the present without holding implications for the future.

Robert E. Bonner is the author of "The Soldier's Pen: Firsthand Impressions of the Civil War" (2006) and a writer for the History News Service.