Our founding fathers are praised, and justifiably so, for creating a form of government based on an ideal that truly defines what is best in humanity, and for surrounding that ideal with a structure that would best preserve and promote that ideal. At the same time, however, they made one disastrous misstep: they allowed a cancer to remain at the heart of this new government. While declaring the unalienable rights of all human beings, they also allowed, and in fact incorporated, the continued practice of slavery. That horrendous contradiction of the founding ideal could, in the end, only be removed at a terrible cost, brother (and sister) fighting against each other, the blood and lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans spilled by their fellow citizens, land ravaged, homes burned to the ground, the countryside laid waste.
No one suffered this carnage and ruin more than the people of the South. The percentage of Southerners owning slaves was actually quite small, yet virtually the entire population of the South was devastated. Sons were sent to slaughter, and homes and fields, and a whole way of life, were destroyed. Then, instead of a program of rebuilding, such as was done by the Marshall Plan after World War II, the South was humiliated by the imposition of a so-called Reconstruction, which, in large part, allowed opportunistic Northern con men to profit from the South’s defeat.
We feel the ill effects of the wrongs committed both by slavery and by that awful war to this day. The very fact that we use a term like “the South” to caricature a huge segment of our American brothers and sisters is a painful illustration of the fact that we have yet to truly join hands in endorsing the ideal that defines us all. Every day, all across our Southern states, men and women and children recommit themselves “to the flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
It is the height of hypocrisy to think that racial bigotry is a Southern disease. I live in the most segregated city in this nation, and it is nowhere near the South. I have heard racial epithets and racist jokes out of the mouths of some of the most prominent so-called pillars of our community. Donald Trump, the poster boy of racial bigotry, is from New York, not Mississippi. The insanity of condemning a person based on skin pigment is a disease, not of the South, but of all of America.
The fact is that, wherever you go in America, folks are just folks. They are trying to have a good life, to raise their families and live in peace with their neighbors. Because they live in a specific place, they take on the characteristics of that place, and that is what gives life and color to our country. There is a character to each of the various areas of our Southern states, and each character adds another facet to the gigantic gem that is America.
I was once invited to the beautiful home of a wonderfully gracious Southern lady in Charleston, South Carolina, in an area known, with great pride, as “south of Broad.” She served me tea, and we talked about our families. At one point, I thanked her for her hospitality, and I told her that it was my first visit to the South, and that I had always been told that Southerners hated Yankees. She frowned, and, putting on her most lyrical Carolina accent, said, “Po’ baby. They lied to you.”
I think of her words often, and I can hear them even now. She was, she remains in my mind, a glowing illustration of the beauty of the South. The people of the South struggle with the sins of which we are all guilty, but they richly deserve our honor and our praise and our embrace as our brothers and sisters and fellow pursuers of the American ideal.