Calendar photo caption: In November 1960, first grader Gail Etienne sits in the back seat of a car driven by a federal marshal as she and Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, and Ruby Bridges integrate formerly white-only schools in New Orleans. (Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
In the 19th century, white Southerners created myths about white supremacy to preserve slavery and bar racial equality. The commitment to slavery and racial hierarchy led to an attack on the United States and a violent Civil War. The frame of "states' rights" persisted after the Confederacy's defeat and was used to block civil rights and racial equality for Black people.
After the Civil War, Southern writers created new Southern myths to glorify Confederate leaders, characterize slavery as a benign institution overseen by benevolent masters, and unify support against racial equality, voting, and civil rights for Black people. Confederate poet Sidney Lanier, for example, lauded Confederate general Robert E. Lee as a noble "Christian soldier" and his defense of slavery as "heroic patriotism" and "splendid manhood."
So intense was the narrative campaign by the defeated South, it ultimately persuaded the Supreme Court and the North to retreat from efforts during Reconstruction to codify protections for Black people. In decision after decision, the Court ceded control to the same white Southerners who used terror and violence to stop Black political participation, upheld laws and practices codifying racial hierarchy, and embraced a new constitutional order defined by "states rights."
The narrative of Southern triumph prevails today due to an incomplete telling of history that denies the terrors of slavery endured by Black men, women, and children. By centering the voices of enslaved people, reckoning with the truth of our history, and memorializing the victims of slavery, a more complete telling of our past can forge a path toward true justice and equality.