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The South’s Fight for White Supremacy

Yet the war, and much of the history of the nation before and after, had been about race. A century after Appomattox, in 1965, at a time when white Southerners were still deeply engaged in preserving Pollard’s Lost Cause, the editors of Ebony magazine published a special edition that became a book: “The White Problem in America.” “The problem of race in America, insofar as that problem is related to packets of melanin in men’s skins, is a white problem,” not a Black one, Lerone Bennett Jr., a historian and senior editor at Ebony, wrote in the volume’s opening essay. “And in order to solve that problem we must seek its source, not in the Negro but in the white American (in the process by which he was educated, in the needs and complexes he expresses through racism) and in the structure of the white community (in the power arrangements and the illicit uses of racism in the scramble for scarce values: power, prestige, income).”

Contributors included Bennett, James Baldwin, John O. Killens, Whitney Young, Carl T. Rowan, Louis E. Lomax, Kenneth B. Clark and Martin Luther King Jr. King’s piece, “The Un-Christian Christian,” argued that white religious believers “too often … have responded to Christ emotionally, but they have not responded to His teachings morally.” As in the Lost Cause of the South and the reunion narrative of the whole nation, white Christianity of midcentury America chose the comforting elements of history and theology rather than the uncomfortable ones.

Baldwin closes the book by imagining the interior monologue of the white American who has been raised on the false history of the Lost Cause. “Do not blame me,” Baldwin wrote of the white “stammering” in his conscience. “I was not there. I did not do it. My history has nothing to do with Europe or the slave trade. Anyway, it was your chiefs who sold you to me. … But, on the same day … in the most private chamber of his heart always, he, the white man, remains proud of that history for which he does not wish to pay, and from which, materially, he has profited so much” — a history manipulated to make the unspeakable palatable.

“A man is a man,” Baldwin wrote, “a woman is a woman, and a child is a child. To deny these facts is to open the doors on a chaos deeper and deadlier, and … more timeless, more eternal, than the medieval vision of Hell.” Only when Pollard’s Lost Cause is truly lost will the nation escape those flames, and begin at last to glimpse the light.

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