Many admire the work of Ken Burns, a documentary filmmaker whose works that illustrate successes and failures of an America that does not yet deal effectively with its shortcomings.
A remastered version of his classic, “The Civil War” began this week on Public Broadcasting System to recognize the 25th anniversary of its first showing and the 125th anniversary of the end of one of the most horrific periods of American history.
Re-watching “The Civil War,” reminds us that while the war supposedly ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army of the Confederacy at Appomattox, the conflicts that brought on the fight continue unabated today.
Burns is a masterful, dedicated filmmaker who makes us examine ourselves and our shortcomings in a society where hate and bigotry still exist. Several of his films focus on racism in American society. Race, he says, defines America.
“Slavery is why the Civil War happened,” Burns tells Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post. “And slavery is still this original sin that Americans have to figure out, somehow, how to transcend and overcome.”
While the Civil War may have brought an claimed end to slavery, Burns says it did not end the racial attitudes towards blacks and oppression in America:
So if the president wasn’t born in the United States, that’s another way of saying the n-word. If he’s Muslim, that’s another way of saying the n-word. All of these things are code, new racial code, for words that now have, at least in public, lost their respectability.
You would rather be able to look at a black person and tell them what to do, and most often today, that means ‘Please stay out of sight. If that means we have to warehouse you in prison, if that means we have to treat your suburb that’s now growing increasingly dark, then we’ll tax you and fine you and keep you in jail to keep our coffers full, and coincidentally, you out of the way.’ All of those things are taking place today, today in the United States.
In America today, the leading candidate in polls for the Republican nomination for President of the United States if flashy billionaire Donald Trump, a “birther” who embraces those who claim Obama is not really a naturally-born citizen of America. Documentation disproves the claim but it continues.
At a political news site that I both own and write a column for, comments arrive daily from those who call Obama a “Muslim,” another false claim that has been dis-proven time and again.
I saw racism at work while a student at Prince Edward Academy in Farmville, Virginia, in the 1950s. The county’s school board and board of supervisors, led by officials of the Ku Klux Klan, closed the public schools to avoid integration and opened and supported the all-white academy. It was the only elementary and high school in the county.
As a reporter at The Roanoke Times in the late 1960s, I covered racial unrest after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis. I later covered racism-based turmoil while reporting for The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois, the city where James Earl Ray, convicted of killing King, was born.
Alton is part of the St. Louis metropolitan area, where racism erupted in the killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson just over a year on Aug. 9, 2014.
All of the way the Ferguson municipality behaved to its own citizens, its majority citizens, is not dissimilar to the way Jim Crow sharecroppers experienced the pernicious substitute for slavery: ‘Well, if we can’t own you, we have to pay you something, it won’t be very much, but we’re going to own every other aspect of you. And by the way now, since you’re no longer my property, I can kill you with impunity, because you’re not valuable to me.’ … And while there was no law that protected African Americans in slavery, and there were supposedly laws that protected them afterwards, they weren’t applied, and in many cases as we learn with chilling regularity, still aren’t applied.
Yet, as a white newspaperman, I am an observer of racism who cannot fully understand what a black American faces in a nation that still does not accept them or other minorities. Many feel the current controversies about immigration is based on American racism against various minorities.
Ken Burns says slavery was the defining issue of the Civil War and the racism that allowed slavery to exist in the beginnings of this nation will festers within our society.
In his interview with The Washington Post, Burns points to the articles of secession:
Is there the words ‘states’ rights’ in their articles of secession? No. Is the word ‘slavery’ there? Yes. Many times.
Slavery is why the Civil War happened. And slavery is still this original sin that Americans have to figure out, somehow, how to transcend and overcome.