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‘Lost Cause’ Narrative Still Permeates Society, Distorting History Along the Way

By Mark McCormick, Kansas Reflector, June 18, 2024

Few images from the violent attacks on peacefully demonstrating teens from civil rights-era demonstrations convey the brutality of the era more than scenes from 1963 Birmingham and the powerful blasts from fire hoses and water cannons.

Pressure from the hoses and water cannons — as much as 100 PSI — could break ribs. Rip out hair. Segregationists pummeled the youths marching for voting rights the way a gardener might scatter fresh-cut cut grass with a leaf blower.

To the men behind those hoses and cannons, the youths and other Black people counted as little more than yard clippings because white Southerners as children fed on a “lost cause” narrative allowing them to think of their activities as something noble or patriotic. The adults beating well-dressed teenagers at lunch counter sit-ins, the women haranguing the Little Rock Nine as they entered school and others sitting in White Citizen Council meetings were taught about the lost cause.

They acted according to those teachings.

Current efforts on the right to erase or dilute our racial history should frighten us. Attempting to erase the past, alter textbooks and misremember history, we are creating new generations of people committed to our centuries-old racial caste system.

People hopeful about achieving racial healing once reassured themselves that when the older generation died, the nation could move on. But people who know better have prepared more stale, racist bread for new generations to consume.

This looks like history on repeat.

Historian Richard Slotkin writes about this in his book, “A Great Disorder: National Myth and the Battle for America.”

“MAGA’s use of myth gives its adherents the sense of righteous empowerment that comes from association with a deeply rooted historical tradition,” Slotkin writes. “But its embrace of Lost Cause symbolism carries with it a commitment to the myth’s political action script of cultural and political authoritarianism. Thus, MAGA has become a distinctly American approach to fascism: more neo-Confederate than neo-Nazi, an amalgam of American exceptionalism, racial and ethnic bigotry, Christian nationalism, and neoliberal economics.”

The irony here is that this long, unbroken resistance to fairness made diversity, equity and inclusion programs — efforts those on the right call racist — urgently necessary.

As Grace Paley, a teacher and poet and activist once said: “We are in the hands of men whose power and wealth have separated them from the reality of daily life and from the imagination. We are right to be afraid.”

Historians have said for years that the Confederacy lost the war but won the narrative.

Journalist and historian Jon Meacham talked about Edward Alfred Pollard authoring the post-Civil War “lost cause” narrative, a story that has endured all these decades later.

“Because the war itself was lost, the war over slavery had been lost, that the South should not reengage in a force of arms,” Meacham said in a speech shown on C-SPAN. “But it should reengage in a battle of ideas where the enemy was declared to be the forces of centralization centered in Washington.

“It was an animating narrative that urged those who harbored a deep belief in white supremacy to give them hope, to continue to fight.”

That narrative continues to animate.

Just last month, a Virginia school board voted to restore the names of two schools to Confederate generals who led the pro-slavery South during the Civil War. Right-wing US textbooks describe the horrors of slavery as “Black immigration,” and the enslaved as “workers.” One Black Florida politician seemed to suggest recently that segregation promoted positive outcomes for Black families.

In this narrative, there’s also a tacit admission that the history under attack is so potent that it must never be seen or heard or read widely. This is why detractors don’t want it discussed. Any cursory exploration would demand immediate redress.

This lost cause narrative still seems to resonate.

It’s powerful enough to convince otherwise sentient beings that it’s OK to run over peaceful protesters. That Kyle Rittenhouse did nothing wrong. That the Confederacy wasn’t racist. That the Jan. 6, 2021, rioters who defecated in the Capital are political prisoners. On this 60th anniversary of Freedom Summer, it seems that everything old is new again.

Renewed calls for “law and order” in a country with two million people in prison. Voter suppression meant to maintain power. Attacking diversity and equality. Banning books about the Black experience.

But we can’t forget about those brave youths who faced those bludgeoning hoses and water cannons.

These are ominous times, especially when we consider this line from the old spiritual: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, but the fire next time.”

Editor’s note: This article was republished from the Kansas Reflector under a Creative Commons license.


Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum, a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and former deputy executive director at the ACLU of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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