In the early Sixties, South Carolina state law mandated that children in both the third and eighth grades receive instruction in the state’s history. As randomness would have it, my first tour of the annals of the Palmetto State coincided with the centennial celebration of The War Between the States. Lessons about Caw Caw the Indian boy competed with classroom drills in which we swiftly assumed fetal positions beneath our tiny desks. (Charleston with its Polaris submarine base offered an inviting target for those Cuban Missiles). Also, on the domestic side, in the background, we could detect a soft growl of discontent rising in the throats of what my family politely called colored people, who, as the ad populum argument went, were being stirred up by “outside agitators.”
Times, you might say, were a-changing.
Not South Carolina history. Preserved in our textbook, time-honored statements “of fact” explained that the vast majority of slaves were well-treated, that unfair tariffs had sparked the Civil War, that the Ku Klux Klan had provided a public service during the dark days of Reconstruction, that Pitchfork Ben Tillman was a man of courage, and that the textile industry promised a potential economic stimulus that might propel the state back into its former glorious position as the cultural vanguard of the nation . . .
When I first started teaching high school in the Mid-Eighties, I still encountered traces of these old arguments, particularly concerning the paternalism of slavery and the predominance of tariffs as the cause of the War. To counter the latter argument, I found copies of Declarations of Causes of Seceding States and highlighted in blue all of the sentences that refer to slavery. Believe me, the unhighlighted patches are about as prevalent as peanuts in Hershey bars. However, back in the day, I, too, believed what I had read. As an eight-year-old, I applauded the Klan of yore, those white-clad knights who had cleansed my native state of nefarious scalawags, carpetbaggers, and, yes, Negroes.
Flash forward a half century. The descendants of Pitchfork Ben have again taken to the streets eager to “retake their country” from what they fear is a proliferation of darker-skinned usurpers. Their Confederate heroes’ statues — Lee, Stonewall Jackson. et al — like Lenin’s after the Soviet Union’s fall – are being dismantled. Our president makes moral equivalences between klansmen, neo-Naxis and counter protestors.
Sunday, along the Battery, as I was guiding visitors from Florida around the Battery, we encountered a handful of protesters. My friend’s children, 11 and 13, looking across the harbor, asked if “the good guys or the bad guys” occupied the fort at the beginning of the war.
As a 13-year-old in 1964, based on my indoctrination, I would have said the “bad guys.”