Late last fall, I decided to read three newly released books, all in the course of a week, to find relief from political campaigns.
Each was on a different topic but came together in a way that has crossed my mind many times since:
- The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by University of Texas professor Dr. H.W. Brands
- Klansville, U.S.A – The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan by Dr. David Cunningham of Brandeis University
- The Better Angels of Our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined by Harvard researcher and experimental psychologist Dr. Steven Pinker.
I haven’t written about them until now because a few days after I completed Steven Pinker’s book, a twenty-year-old man killed his mother and then gunned down twenty school children, mostly first graders and six elementary school officials in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
That tragic event doesn’t undermine the thesis of Pinker’s book. He made an insightful distinction about violence in an interview last month with Rotarian magazine when he stated that:
“Violence is not a hydraulic urge, like hunger, thirst, or sexual desire that has to be discharged through one outlet or another. It is more like shivering or jealousy – a response to particular triggers in the environment.”
My sixteen great-great grandparents were all of the same generation as U.S. Grant. They were born during a period of great awakening but by the time they entered adulthood, the nation had begun to unravel.
When the Civil War broke out Grant was only 39. By the time he reached 46, he has saved the Union and been elected President of the United States.
There is evidence that profiteering during the war, e.g. black marketeers following behind Union lines to exchange gold for southern cotton which was in turn used to by the Confederacy to buy weapons and supplies. You get the feeling from the book on Grant that he felt this extended the war by several years.
In his January essay for Our State magazine, Dr. Philip Gerard of UNC-Wilmington provides evidence that when the war turned against the South, religious leaders did not rethink their biblical rationalization of slavery, but chalked it up to God’s displeasure with merchants who were “price-gouging customers for scarce commodities.”
There are many things in Durham, North Carolina, where I have lived for nearly 25 years, that remind us of the generosity Grant and Sherman planned as the huge surrender was negotiated here to effectively end the Civil War. But that was all reversed when interrupted by President Lincoln’s assassination.
The ink was hardy dry on documents formally ending the war when Southern apologists effectively rewrote the history of the war as one merely about state’s rights. Many times during his two terms as President, Grant had to send troops back into Southern states to quell violence and safeguard elections.
As soldiers from both sides fraternized during the surrender in Durham, they developed a taste for tobacco that had been cured and stored here. They wrote letters seeking more once they got home, which help launch factories that saved Durham from much – but not all - of the destitution and violence that inhabited the south after the war.
Economic opportunity here also spawned a Black Wall Street and made Durham a beacon for racial diversity, which it remains today.
When I arrived in 1989 to jumpstart the community’s destination marketing arm, my first business road trip took me eventually south on US 1 where I was stunned to see a huge NCDOT highway sign heralding a small town along the route as the home of the KKK Grand Wizard.
Within a few years Dr. Cunningham started his masters degree at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill just south of Durham. His book in many respects helps me understand why that unusual highway marker was not only permitted to exist but enabled.
According to Cunningham’s research, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the Klan’s stronghold was North Carolina, with more members than the rest of the South combined.
Writing and presenting editorials for a Raleigh TV station at the time, the soon-to-become Republican Senator Jesse Helms was possibly the first in that party to discover how to inflame angry white men, and by the time I moved here, his campaign commercials even in the 1990s still seemed overtly racist.
As Helms was readying his first campaign for the US Senate in Raleigh in 1971, CP (Claiborne Paul) Ellis, the head of the KKK in Durham, was joining forces with Ann Atwater, a poor African American civil rights activist, to put aside differences and improve public schools. Their story was published a half dozen years after my arrival here.
North Carolina’s complicated journey toward racial tolerance is epitomized for me by a young North Carolinian of the same generation as U.S. Grant and my great-great grandparents by the name of Hinton Rowan Helper (shown in the image in this blog.)
He was born just off the route of what is I-40 today, about midway between Winston-Salem and Statesville and just west of Mocksville. He was apprenticed to a printer in Salisbury and in 1857 published a book with charts and graphs showing why slavery didn’t make sense for the South as an economic institution.
His book The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It was distributed by the Republican Party as a campaign document and it branded Helper a traitor in the South. But in the end Helper too was still a white separatist as many were at the time who disavowed slavery.
His book panicked the planter elite for fear this tiny fraction, who held power, would not only face a slave insurrection, a fear of which had spawned the Second Amendment right to bear arms, but an uprising of white yeoman farmers who opposed slavery but ultimately were destined to sacrifice the most blood in its defense.
Ironically though, the right to bear arms also ended up as a protection for free and now freed Blacks who armed themselves following the Civil War and emancipation against the continuing tyranny when following Grant’s terms as President, the Republican Party turned a blind eye to the atrocities and became solely captive to its Wall Street wing.
Today, it is the Republican Party that is more prone to try to manipulate voter rights. In fact, it may be the Party that saved the Union that is now ironically fostering another era of unraveling which cyclical historians project will lead to another another turn of crisis such as the Civil War or WWII by my mid to late 70s.
It may have a happy ending as WWII did, or it may result in preservation of the Union but decades of unfinished business as the Civil War did.
The cycle is predictable but there are no guarantees of the outcome as time can do so much.