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Friday, October 28, 2016

On the day after the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Abraham Lincoln appeared at a second-floor window of the White House. He was acceding to the wishes of citizens who had gathered to serenade their president in this moment of victory. They called for a speech but Lincoln demurred. Instead he asked the band to play “Dixie.”

The song — a homesick Southerner’s lament — had been the de facto anthem of the Confederacy during 48 bloody months of civil war, but Lincoln declared now that the South held no monopoly on it. “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard,” he said. It was probably his way of encouraging a nation that had ripped itself apart along sectional lines to begin knitting itself together again.

Lincoln received an answer of sorts two days later as beaten rebels surrendered their weapons to the Union Army. Union General Joshua Chamberlain remarked to Southern counterpart Henry Wise that perhaps now “brave men may become good friends.”

Wise’s reply was bitter as smoke. “You’re mistaken, sir,” he said. “You may forgive us, but we won’t be forgiven. There is a rancor in our hearts which you little dream of. We hate you, sir.”

Two days after that, April 14, Lincoln received a more direct response. John Wilkes Booth, famed actor and Southern sympathizer, shot him in the head.

Thus ended arguably the most consequential week in American history. This week, the events of that week move fully 150 years into the past. They are further away than they have ever been. And yet, they feel quite close. If the “hate” Henry Wise spoke of has dissipated in the 15 decades gone by, what has not faded is Dixie’s sense of itself as a place apart and a people done wrong. Small wonder.

Twice now — at gunpoint in the 1860s, by force of law a century later — the rest of the country has imposed change on the South, made it do what it did not want to do, i.e., extend basic human rights to those it had systematically brutalized and oppressed. No other part of the country has ever experienced that, has ever seen itself so harshly chastised by the rest.

Both times, the act was moral and necessary. But who can deny, or be surprised, that in forcing the South to do the right thing, the rest of the country fostered an abiding resentment, an enduring “apartness,” made the South a region defined by resistance. Name the issue — immigration, race, abortion, education, criminal justice — and law and custom in Dixie have long stood stubbornly apart from the rest of the country. But the headline 150 years later is that that apartness no longer confines itself to the boundaries of the Confederacy.

In 2015, for example, we see the old pattern repeating in the fight over marriage equality — most of the country having decided as a moral matter that this has to happen, yet a few people resisting as the change is imposed over their wishes. But if resistance is fierce in Arkansas, it also is fierce in Indiana. The sense of apartness is less geographically constrained. Who knows if that’s progress?

There is nothing predestined about America’s ultimate ability to overcome its contradictions. This was true in 1865 and it’s true now. It will always be true of a people bound, not by common ancestry but only common cause — a presumed fealty to self-evident truths.

America shattered in 1861. Lincoln forced the bloody pieces back together at the cost of over 600,000 lives, one of them his own. It never did knit itself back together in the way he had hoped — in the way he might have helped it to, had he survived.

Instead, it became this once broken thing where the seams of repair still show. And the question of that consequential week is the question of every day since then. Can you make a country out of that?

So far, so good.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected])

Photo: Confederate flag on state capitol grounds, Charleston, S.C. (Jason Eppink/Flickr)

  • Budjob

    If,and when there is another conflict between the states,perhaps the North should let them win this time around! The Southern state resent the North,and always will.If they would have become an independent country,the rest of us wouldn’t have to endure the screwballs,and nutjobs that they have presented to the rest of the country!

    • Allan Richardson

      Only if they agree to allow refugees to leave and take title to their property (including bank accounts and investment funds) with them, and arrange for the federal government to move whatever has been paid for with federal dollars (e.g. space facilities in Houston, Huntsville and Cape Canaveral, military bases, etc.) physically out of Dixie and demolish the vacant buildings. We should not let the seceding states get ANY benefit from their severed relationship with the decent people of the other states. Let them figure out how to fund their OWN necessary relief for poor white Republican voters without help from the rest of us.

      Full disclosure: I am a native of Florida currently living in Georgia, and I never agreed with the idea that the majority have ANY right to take rights AWAY from any individual for being part of a minority group, from the time I was old enough to understand how the apartheid system worked.

  • Dominick Vila

    While it is important to never forget the reasons and consequences of the Civil War, the deeds and hopes of a wonderful President, or the struggles of the Civil Rights days, I think it is also important to make an effort to understand and accept the realities of discrimination and intolerance that still remain in America…which are not limited to Dixie. While discrimination is more likely to be found in Dixie than in other parts of the country, the truth is that the overt hatred towards those who are different, ethnically, culturally, or economically, from mainstream Americans can be found in every corner of the country.
    The prejudices that so many of us have not yet managed to overcome did not start a century and a half ago, they have been part of humanity since the earliest beginnings of mankind, and are often influenced by the same circumstances: religion, ignorance, fear, greed, territorial and material needs, and suspicion of anyone who in any way is different from us.
    The claims used to demonize minority groups, whether they are members of another ethnic group or culture, or those whose sexual preferences are different than ours, those who for a variety of reasons had no choice but to migrate, or those whose financial or ideology differs from ours, are just excuses or instruments used to subjugate them or reject them.
    Much has changed since the Civil War days, and since Selma, Little Rock, and Memphis, but I fear it will be a very long time before our country becomes the bastion of freedom and democracy it pretends to be.

  • sherifffruitfly

    (shrug) the lost cause-ers will forever be lost. they don’t have decency in them – the trait has been bred out.

  • R Michael Maddox

    Nicely Put Article. I have lived in this South for going on 45 years now and the feelings STILL RUN DEEP! In Twiggs County, Ga. this week the Sons and Daughters of The Confederacy celebrated a long and bitter fight to get the Confederate Monument put back on the Court House Square.

  • Eleanore Whitaker

    They might call it “culture” but it is anything but. What kind of culture or society believes it’s okay to buy and sell human beings into slavery? What kind of culture is so obsessed with white male superiority that women in the south are treated like Dixie Belle back seat toys?

    The Confederacy is only perpetuated by imbeciles who live like it’s still 1850. That’s why salaries in the south are still on a level with sharecroppers, why education is not valued and why the only industries they perpetuate cost the rest of the country in pollution cleanup or deaths.

    The southern culture is one of deliberate “ignernce” that has continued as a result of living in the past for far too long. Everything in the Confederacy is about someone who has died or an era that is dead.