Generations ago, one of my relatives fought alongside General Stonewall Jackson and continued the South’s struggle with General Robert E. Lee to the Appomattox Court House. There, on Palm Sunday in 1865, Lee surrendered and effectively ended the Civil War. His surrender was a significant day in white supremacy’s evolution, but its meaning gets lost in America’s racial mythology. In that fog’s murkiness lurks white supremacy and its ongoing threat to the soul of our nation. Palm Sunday provides an opportunity for a more honest reckoning with Lee’s legacy, and how our nation’s addiction to radical racial inequalities perpetuates white supremacy.
Lee’s life and legacy are as American as apple pie. He was a Virginian, and his father was a Revolutionary War hero with friendly ties to the nation’s most significant founders. Lee’s aristocratic roots meant that he was cut from the same white supremacist cloth and enslaver culture as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison — he also married Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter, who was the matron of George Washington’s artifacts and the family’s enslaved people. No one involved in the Civil War was more enmeshed in the lore of the Revolution and no man — at least no white man — understood the significance of slavery and secession better than Robert E. Lee.
Among our nation’s founders, the white supremacy that warred for America’s soul was a national, rather than a Southern, mythology. As historian Gerald Horne documents in The Counter-Revolution of 1776, John Hancock was Boston’s largest enslaver and John Adams believed in African American inferiority and profiteered from legal fees to protect enslavers against the enslaved. Alexander Hamilton refused to support a debate to end slavery in the first Congress in order to prioritize a plan to enrich financial speculators at the expense of Revolutionary War veterans. For Hamilton, laying a foundation for radical economic inequality proved more important than supporting a plan to eradicate slavery.
Robert E. Lee’s white supremacy not only harmonized perfectly with his Southern roots, but also with the uniting mythology of the white men whose ideals tied America together. This truth requires soul searching.
Since white supremacy was our nation’s founding mythology, the Civil War was never about white supremacy. Well into the war, Abraham Lincoln envisioned exporting emancipated African Americans to distant colonies rather than treat the liberated with equality. “You and we are different races,” Lincoln told African American leaders as the war raged. “It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.” Due to Lincoln and Lee’s white supremacy, the Civil War was a focused struggle over whether slavery was the institutional form America’s racial mythology should take.
When Lee lost the Civil War, the South lost the institution of slavery. But institutions evolve, and white supremacy never lost its grip.
After the war, Lee continued fighting for the maintenance of white supremacy by the right for Southerners to control race relations in the South. He termed his conviction the “right of self-government” and promised to “treat the negro with kindness and humanity.” Of course, Lee’s promise concerning “negro” relations cannot be divorced from his hopes for “negroes.” In a letter to his wife lamenting the “multitude of miseries” African Americans endured, Lee clarified his hopes for freed Black people: “I hope that death must come sooner or later will end them all.” Although he would not live to see it, Lee’s post-Civil War struggle to control race relations in the South proved frighteningly successful by 1877. Southern white supremacists ruled the South for the next century.
However, it was white supremacy’s evolution in the post-Civil War North that proved most prophetic for America’s racial mythology. Northern white supremacists spoke with a scientific accent, and Northern elites adopted Darwin’s theories to root white supremacy in biology. When the “science” of white supremacy later failed on biological grounds, those same elites blamed African American inferiority on alleged corruption of Black culture. For Northern elites, whether by nature or nurture, Black people were inferior and singularly responsible for their own suffering.
The power of the more “scientific” white supremacy was its ability to justify indifference to radical racial inequalities without thinking of such indifference as racist. By “scientifically” engineering a racial self-deception, intellectuals believed radical racial inequalities evidenced African American inferiority rather than racist public policies. The deeper the roots of racial inequalities traced to “scientific truths,” the more indifference to injustice became a mark of racial enlightenment.
As white supremacy evolved in the early 20th century, it proved well designed to protect and perpetuate radical racial inequalities of Northern elites even as masses of African Americans sought haven from the South in other cities during the Great Migration. “It has taken us 50 years to learn,” wrote New York’s Madison Grant in his 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race, “that speaking English, wearing good clothes, and going to school and to church do not transform a negro into a white man.”
There is little room to doubt that Lee would find something holy in the white supremacist writings of Northern elites like Madison Grant. With rare exceptions, justifications for indifference to Black suffering produced an “Amen!” from most of white America. But the more uncomfortable truth is that most of white America — from our nation’s inception till now — share more in common with Lee’s desire to perpetuate white supremacy than Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle to realize racial equality.
This Palm Sunday, white supremacy demands white repentance. From our nation’s genesis till today — whether through slavery, Jim Crow, or our current indifference to racial inequalities — white America proves ready to sacrifice Black America on white supremacy’s altar.
The price of America’s racial mythologies is a precious piece of our collective humanity and the soul of the communities we call home. In looking at Lee, white America must realize that although white supremacy evolves, its price never changes.
About the Author
Joel Edward Goza is the author of America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics, which will be released in April 2019 and received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. Joel writes from Houston’s 5th Ward Community.