One hundred and fifty years ago, the American Civil War ended. The Confederacy which had broken away from the Union was defeated by the armies of the North . There has ever since been a wound in the American psyche. The Confederacy claimed that it had seceded to defend States’ Rights. The issue for Lincoln and the North was slavery. The Southern states had slave ownership and wanted to retain it. They lost and during the War Lincoln signed the Emancipation Declaration. A fortnight ago, a young man, Dylann Roof, entered a quiet church in Charleston, South Carolina, one of the old Confederate states. He shot nine Black churchgoers who were quietly conducting a Bible reading. They had welcomed him. He had an obsession about Black Americans taking over the country. He wanted to start a race war. The victims he shot were hardly likely to start any war Indeed, the relations of the victims forgave Dylann Roof.
When people looked at Dylann Roof’s website, they found him wrapped in the Confederate flag. This then pointed to the persistence of loyalty to the old slaveholding states which lingers to this day. Indeed it turns out that many states in the South fly the flag on their official buildings. Nikki Haley, the Governor of South Carolina, has finally moved a motion that the Confederate flag should no longer be flown on the Capitol Building. It took a lot of courage on her part to do that. The practice of flying the flag is not just for showing respect for the brave soldiers who fought in the civil war on the losing side. It is a defiant symbol of White Racism. The flag had been revived in 1962 when the civil rights movement was beginning to force southern states to integrate. Obviously White Americans, not all but enough, living in the South thought they were not happy with the way their country was rejecting racism.
Race is still a divisive force in American life. In terms of prison population or people injured or killed by the police, Blacks are disproportionately the more likely victims. Even poverty and ill health have greater incidence in the former Confederate states than in the North. That is where the opposition to Obamacare, the health scheme to help poorer citizens is the strongest. Despite a President whose parents were Black and White, America has still not come to terms with the race issue. As Condoleezza Rice, the first Black woman to become Secretary of State, has said slavery is the birthmark of the USA.
Of course the position of Black Americans is much better now than it was when I was first there in the early Sixties. Then the whole country had racist laws. Now much of the country is free of crude racism and racial discrimination. Lyndon Johnson, despite coming from the South, pioneered civil rights legislation. Over the next fifty years, much has changed. There is a black middle class and for children born in the middle class, colour does not matter much. But poverty is disproportionately high among the Black people.
It has taken a tragedy of the proportion of Charleston with nine people shot dead for America to think again about its history. The disgust at Dylann Roof’s act has moved many White Americans to give up their loyalty to the Confederate flag. The generous gesture of the church, where the killings took place, has also moved many people. America has unfinished business when it comes to race. It cannot be the land of the brave and the home of the free while some are less free than others.
India has its own birth wound. The Partition is a wound that has not healed. It still incites passion. The Parivar is always keen to send Muslims off to Pakistan at every opportunity, most recently for not joining in the yoga exercise. If there are people who want to build a temple to the memory of Nathu Ram Godse it is also for that reason. It was Gandhiji’s insistence that justice be done to Pakistan in the division of assets that led Godse to kill him. Let us hope India may heal the wound sooner than America and without so many killings.