Eric Foner says the face of racism now isn’t a slaveowner (interview)

Historians in the News
tags: racism, Eric Foner, Church shooting, Charleston, Dylan Roof

Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University and the author of numerous books on the Civil War and Reconstruction. 

How significant would it be, symbolically, for the Confederate battle flag to be removed by South Carolina?

ERIC FONER As you know, and as it has been reported many times, the Confederate flag was only put up on top of the Statehouse in South Carolina in 1962. It was put there as a rebuke to the civil rights movement. It was not a long-standing commemoration of Southern heritage. It was a purely political act to show black people in South Carolina who was in charge.

Symbolism has its limits. On the other hand, to see that flag flying … it’s a statement by South Carolina. Black people perfectly well understand what it stands for. A lot of white people do also. I think removing it is certainly a positive step.

Can you tell me a bit about South Carolina’s history in this regard, and why it’s often singled, out even among its fellow former Confederate states?

ERIC FONER I have taught in South Carolina as a visiting professor. I have lectured many times in South Carolina at the University of South Carolina, at Clemson, at Beaufort, in Charleston. I have good friends there and I’m certainly not trying to suggest that everyone in South Carolina is a deep racist or has anything to do with a guy like Dylann Roof. On the other hand, one has to recognize that South Carolina has a very unique and deplorable history when it comes to slavery and race.

It goes way back to the American Revolution. South Carolina had delegates who insisted that Thomas Jefferson take out a clause that condemned slavery from the Declaration of Independence. It was South Carolina delegates who got the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Clause into the Constitution. It was South Carolina who was the leader in nullification, the leader in secession. The first shot of the Civil War was shot there. South Carolina was the only Southern state in which the majority of white families owned slaves.

And yet, not incidentally, it also had an unusually large African-American population, too, right?

ERIC FONER It had about a 60 percent black population at the time of the Civil War. In other words, the majority of the people in South Carolina were slaves. To say that the Confederate flag represents the heritage of that state is not true; it actually did not represent the majority of South Carolinians even at the time the Confederacy existed.

What was South Carolina’s experience during Reconstruction and the long postwar era?

ERIC FONER During Reconstruction, South Carolina was the site of a very remarkable experiment in interracial democracy. Because of the large black majority, you had a considerable amount of African-Americans holding office at various levels: going to Congress, being in the Legislature, and local offices.

The result of that was a violent reaction against it. The Ku Klux Klan was very powerful in South Carolina. In 1876 there was the violent overthrow of the Reconstruction government. There have been a lot of massacres — if you want to call them that — of black people in South Carolina history. The Hamburg massacre of 1876 was part of the overthrow of Reconstruction. People forget about the Orangeburg massacre, where a number of black students were killed by officers of the state highway patrol at Orangeburg, a black college, in 1968. This is the history of South Carolina.

South Carolina was the home of Ben Tillman, one of the most vicious racists and segregationists of the 19th century. [Former South Carolina governor and senator] Strom Thurmond led the Dixiecrat rebellion of 1948 against Truman and the Democratic platform. South Carolina was one of the few states that voted for Goldwater in 1964, which was an indication of the possibilities of a Southern strategy the Republican Party has been following ever since. This is the history of South Carolina.

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