The Past Isn’t Past

For the past couple of years, I’ve been reading books on American history–some general, several by scholars focused on slavery and Jim Crow, and still others exploring specific movements–for women’s suffrage, for civil rights, for LGBTQ acceptance. I’ve come away from these descriptions of times past with the realization that in far too many ways, the past really isn’t past–that world-views that were powerful “back then” are far more present than I’ve wanted to believe.

 I recently finished a book titled Marse, written by a forensic psychiatrist named Kirkpatrick, who’d discovered–relatively late in his life–that the great-great grandfather for whom he was named had been a slave owner. In high-school, he and a Black acquaintance with the same last name had jokingly called each other “cuz.” When the two of them reconnected, some forty years later, the classmate shared his ancestry research, which had uncovered the fact that his forebears had been owned by the author’s ancestors–hence the same name. 

Kirkpatrick was stunned–that bit of history hadn’t been part of his family’s lore.

“Marse” is an old Southern word meaning “master,” and Kirkpatrick chose it as the (somewhat awkward) title of the book. Given his professional background, he fashioned his research as a “psychological autopsy” into the minds and behaviors of the Southern planters who believed themselves entitled to own other human beings.

Kirkpatrick’s description of the psychological effects of the “peculiar institution” on  slaveholders was instructive. He delved into the psychological mechanisms with which Marse justified the ownership of other human beings — the personality distortions, defense mechanisms, and psycho-pathologies that were an arguably inevitable effect of owning human “property.”

What was especially fascinating to me was the extent to which all White Southerners, those who owned slaves and those who didn’t, believed that Christianity and the Bible affirmatively promoted slavery as a positive good. Kirkpatrick devotes an entire chapter to  Evangelical pastors’ arguments justifying White dominance, arguments that Blacks were little more than animals who didn’t have souls, insisting that God had decreed the propriety/necessity of slavery, and arguments emphasizing that Jesus never spoke out against enslavement.

Southern Evangelicals, having cited chapter and verse, successfully enlisted the Bible to justify the overwhelming majority of slaveholders and non-slaveholders in defense of slavery as ordained by God.

The parallels between the psychology of antebellum slaveholding and today’s racists are unmistakable. The poor Whites who formed the bulk of the Confederate army identified with the slaveholders; they hated Black enslaved people and believed them to be inferior.

As Kirkpatrick writes, it would be naive to think that the psychological pathologies that enabled slavery didn’t continue to shape the nation’s economic, social and political systems over the century and a half that followed the Civil War.

In his final chapter, Kirkpatrick draws a compelling parallel between today’s Trump supporters and the Southern Whites who fought for slavery and for White Christian social dominance. He compares the South’s belief in the “Lost Cause”–the revisionist belief that the South’s losses in battle were the result of chicanery–that the South had been the victim of “Yankee vandals” engaged in an immoral and political power grab– to Trump’s Big Lie that his election had been stolen through fraud and theft.

Kirkpatrick draws a straight line between today’s MAGA movement and those “Lost Cause” Southerners. Like “Lost Cause” believers, Trump supporters feel  cheated and victimized–and are consumed with resentment and rage, “denying to themselves just how fearful they are about the changes taking place in the social and political fabric of our nation.”

The fact that the rioters who stormed the Capitol constituted a lynch mob dramatically links the events of January 6, 2021 back to the racist white supremacy of American slavery and post-Reconstruction violence of the Jim Crow era in American history.

The chapter traces what Kirkpatrick calls the “through line” of racist White supremacy and the psychology of those pre-Civil War slaveholders to  today’s MAGA GOP and Trump.

I don’t want to suggest that today’s White Christian ideology comes solely from “Lost Cause” Southerners;  this video (sent by a reader) of 22,000 American Nazis gathered in Madison Square Garden before WWII demonstrates that bigotry didn’t come only from the South.

Americans are just now coming to terms with the realities of the nation’s past. Much of that past is immensely positive–but making continued progress will requires us to grapple with the other parts, the parts that were wrongheaded, savage, and shameful.

We will never understand where we are if we don’t know where we’ve been, and we won’t defeat the MAGA throwbacks unless we understand the complicated and ugly roots of their hatreds.

Accurate history matters.


  1. “…making continued progress will requires us to grapple with the other parts, the parts that were wrongheaded, savage, and shameful.”
    I truly believe this is why the MAGAs don’t want these dark parts of American history taught in schools. Progress toward equity and equality is the last thing they want. Their power lies in creating and sustaining turmoil. After all, you have to have someone to blame for your problems—someone other than yourself.

  2. If you want to fill in that gap between the Civil War era and the present I recommend reading the book A Fever In The Heartland by Timothy Egan. Then, perhaps, you will see what I see.
    What I see is not that bigotry arose out of slavery, and that religion was used to excuse it, but rather that religious beliefs that stressed and continue to stress that adherents to their religion were “BETTER THAN, SUPERIOR TO, those unlike themselves lays the groundwork for bigotry and racism. If one is raised to see themselves as “SAVED” and others are not, it is a short leap to believe that those others (usually whoever is competing with them for economic advantage) is some kind of threat/enemy. It only takes a demigod to “enlighten” the believers into action against any non-believing group. In Indiana it was the dominant white protestants who where shown by D.C. Stevenson that they were being threatened by those awful immigrants pouring into the country from Southern and eastern Europe: olive skinned Catholic Italians and raggedy Russian Jews. Out in San Francisco the threat to the white establishment was seen as the immigration of those from China. In Colorado it was the Mexicans who were seen as a threat.
    And most revelatory to me is the realization that this same mindset of religious superiority originates worldwide in every religion history has ever known.

  3. Others in the world note what we do and do not do regarding this issue. Hitler was very impressed with how America dealt with the native Americans and the Black people. He used the US Jim Crow laws as a model for how to marginalized the “other” in Germany. Before Hitler, Berlin had a thriving Gay culture – ahead of its time. Then Gays ended up in the extermination camps. Things can go backward as quickly as they move forward. We are in scary times. I hope this all works out without death and destruction…but it could go either way. It has before.

  4. Coincidental that the title of the blog today fits with a bit of music running through my head this morning after watching CNN’s 4:00 a.m. Newsroom. Being deaf, my mind sometimes runs a bit of music for me. This morning it was “When The Lights Go On Again All Over The World”; these are dark days we are living in, and we have never before been aware of the global darkness thanks to the media. America’s inner darkness remains the color of ones skin as an easily identifiable target for hatred and bigotry. Our recent “past” (2015) has brought out into the open entire groups of others as targets whose rights were upheld by laws until those laws were repealed, moving us back in time to relive our darker past. It’s de ja vu all over again in Yogi Berra speak.

    “We will never understand where we are if we don’t know where we’ve been, and we won’t defeat the MAGA throwbacks unless we understand the complicated and ugly roots of their hatreds.”

    Today’s “throwbacks” are easily identified; they are an ex-president of the United States and his cohorts, friendly and not, who are now or soon to be presidential candidates. “The Past Isn’t Past” when President Joe Biden is currently waging a national battle to unite the parties to save the country on a much higher level than President Abraham Lincoln fought to unite Congress and pass the 13th Amendment. Enter the infighting Democratic attempts to force President Biden to use the 14th Amendment to take the control away from Congress and dictate a solution to save the nation from itself. And it all goes back to FOLLOW THE MONEY!!!

  5. The Civil War has always felt to me to be recent history. As a child, I sat on the lap of a man Georgia-born in 1860: my great grandfather. He told me how at age 5, he’d helped his mother hide their livestock from Gen. Sherman’s advancing army. For years, I told people my ancestors were too poor to own slaves. However, now in my 80s, I have learned that my great-great grandfather was a prosperous plantation owner… and slaveholder. He was also an officer in the Confederate Army. In fact, several members of both my parents’ families served the Confederacy in uniform. Tracing the history of Civil War-era ideas to the present seems obvious. We have not come as far as we like to believe.

  6. When trying to argue for the teaching of accurate history, people often bring out the fact that there is much to be proud of, to laud, while also much to be ashamed of and learn from. I’ve done it myself. The idea is to show that there is good and bad, and that it’s not a one-sided story.

    The problem with this is that the parts we think are good are largely the parts that the MAGA crowd thinks are terrible. So, they hear that we want to discuss all these things that are terrible (like suffrage, civil rights, LGBTQ gains, etc.) as well as all these things we think are terrible. (To a lesser extent, perhaps, they don’t think the bad things are terrible but they do know that many people do.) In other words, it’s all terrible to them. So, instead of teaching any of that, they want to focus on the “American Patriot” propaganda. It’s like “support the troops”; who could argue with that?

  7. “the extent to which all White Southerners”
    “all”?? perhaps most, many, but all?

  8. In reading authentic history of our nation’s rise, I must accept both pride and pain.

    Excellent thought provoking post, Sheila:

    >> We will never understand where we are if we don’t know where we’ve been, and we won’t defeat the MAGA throwbacks unless we understand the complicated and ugly roots of their hatreds.

    Accurate history matters. <<

    Our past is both empowering and at times painfully our present.

  9. There’s not much to say about our nation’s stains, but we need to make it right. CA has passed a bill seeking reparations for those families hurt by slavery. Unfortunately, the Indigenous people were also mistreated. We make great speeches, but not so much in actions.

    Imagine how much propaganda was at the time (or the mindset) of the poor whites in the South who gave up their lives to fight for the Southern Oligarchy to maintain their hierarchy.

    For those asking questions about RFK yesterday, I expect you to perform your critical thinking and not be persuaded by memes or mainstream media attacks. This group of posters uses their brains to solve problems.

    My doctor stopped the vaccines after #2 but wouldn’t go on record or risk losing her license to practice medicine. The drug cartel has that much control over doctors. I know a doctor who spoke up about air pollution who lived in Southern Indiana and now practices medicine in Illinois.

    On a personal note, my sister had a heart attack after a stress test revealed nothing, but she had the second jab.

    Don’t let the oligarchic-owned media sway you on RFK, Jr., because he will get plenty of media attention (propaganda). Calling someone “anti-science” because he believes in Big Pharma corruption with the government is a fool’s game.

    He also knows mass incarceration today – modern slavery, especially in the South. So RFK. Jr. will be a big problem for the DNC and their media propaganda outlets.

  10. Historian Jon Meacham’s recent book on President Lincoln, “And There Was Light,” explains how Biblical passages were used in the south to defend slavery and, in some cases, to promote slavery as a God-endorsed benefit for Blacks. An enlightening read.

  11. David,

    It wasn’t just American southerners’ churches that distorted the Bible for the economic ends that the “oligarchs” of the day actually embraced. The Dutch Reformed Church used the “sons of Ham” thing to justify apartheid. And we know how well that turned out too.

    Slavery has been in the human “culture” for thousands of years before our “experiment” with democracy. Guess who built the pyramids.

    And yet… There are MANY posts on Facebook still trying to justify the cultural pride of the Confederacy. Unbelievable. Traitors and losers being held up as patriots and heroes. You can’t make this up. Only in America? Nope.

  12. Let me just state the obvious: You can’t learn the lessons of history until you learn the history!

  13. Great comments today all! Now…the hard part…how do we turn away from the iceberg?

  14. I grew up in South Carolina in the 50s and 60s with its “colored” bathrooms and water fountains. When I moved to Indianapolis in 2000, I thought I’d be rid of racism. The first Saturday I picked up in Indy Star and saw that an elderly widow had bequeathed her ranch to the KKK as a retreat and educational center. So much for escaping racism. While racist behavior seemed to be about the same, the mode of racism differed. In the South, it was just a part of the culture. In Indy, it seemed that the racist behavior came from a different place in the soul. Just an observation.

  15. Harold D Lewis Jr.; a totally astute observation, the racism behavior has been reactivated with approval of the Republican party. Thank you for speaking out.

    I lived in Fredericksburg, VA in 1955; my husband and I went to the drive-in movie a number of times, I noted other girls in the restroom staring at me. We went to the drive-in with another couple one night and she and I headed to the restroom; she stopped me and pointed out that was the colored restroom. We moved on the whites only restroom which was just as shabby and smelly as the colored restroom; “separate but equal” before it became accepted. I still wonder what was accomplished by that segregation requirement.

  16. As interesting as history (an accounting of our past) may be, there is also in the mix historicity, or a study of historical authenicity as a PhD in the discipline explained to me, a study of history itself, i. e., the reliability of history in many different contexts or, such as in the case today, slavery.

    I think given such internal checks that we should recognize that history does not come forth to us for analysis on a broad and even front but rather unevenly and with salient eruptions and retreats depending on the topic of the day under analysis and a number of other such limitations, one being geographical. Thus, for instance, we know that an account of the Civil War by a professor of history holding forth at the University of South Alabama and one from the University of Vermont may show considerable divergence in “an account of our past.”

    As thus understood, we are well-advised to heed Lester’s iceberg warning today (even if we are already on an intellectual Titanic) by some future account of our then past that perfectly passes the test of historicity of that day – an unlikely event – since few if any “problems” in social science are free of contemporary cleavage – but we in the pursuit of “truth in historical application” have no choice but to employ the lessons of history to the problems of today, however flawed its internal constraints and intellectual limitations aside.

  17. Lester, RFK, Jr. has an answer for you on his website:

    “Freedom of speech is the capstone of all other rights and freedoms. Once a government has the power to silence its opponents, no other right is safe. We will therefore dismantle the censorship-industrial complex, in which Big Tech censors, deplatforms, shadowbans, and algorithmically suppresses any person or opinion the government asks them to. We will respect the right to privacy and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, by ending mass surveillance of American citizens and the abuse of civil asset forfeiture. We will make sure that the Covid-era suspension of the right to assembly, trial by jury, and freedom of worship will never happen again. The same for the right to property. During Covid, 3.4 million business were forced to close. Many of them, including 60% of Black-owned businesses, will never reopen.

  18. Gerald – a thoughtful/real reply. I am currently immersed in such a study and highly recommend it to you and other readers of this blog: The Upswing by Robert Putnam. I am not quite finished, so I don’t know how it (or “we”) end…

  19. Todd, sorry but in his own words RFK, Jr. sounds to me like a nut job. We have freedom of speech, we don’t need to restore it. Perhaps he wants to further protect freedom of hate speech and freedom to slander and libel without consequence? I think we have plenty of that already. Witness the difficulty of holding anyone responsible for those crimes.
    The part about the “censorship-industrial complex”, whatever that is, sounds like Q anon level conspiracy theory to me. And I, as a person at high risk of dying from Covid, appreciate the actions taken by the government to try to slow the spread of the disease.
    Thank you for quoting him at length so I can judge him on accurate information rather than second or third hand opinion.

  20. Hunter, you made my point more eloquently than I would have been able to. For many years, I have believed that history is nearer to the present than we would like to believe. That belief was cemented when my mother-in-law spoke of sitting on her grandfather’s knee as he described waking up early one winter morning as a soldier during the Civil War. It had snowed during the night and the sleeping soldiers appeared as so many mounds in the blanket of snow. He eventually took a ball in his cheekbone which he carried to the end of his life. History, from his mouth to my daughter’s ears.

    No, none of this surprises me at all, but I am intrigued by Kirkpatrick analysis and plan to check it out.

  21. I believe I’ve commented on this very thing many times.

    The sons of Ham and ordained slavery is ridiculous! One of the sons of Ham was Canaan(The cursed One) was actually the progenitor of the lighter race of North African And Iberian peninsula people. Ham’s other sons, Kush and Put were the progenitors of the darker skinned races in Africa because that’s where they settled. That is noted in scripture! So the darker skin races from Africa were not cursed, it was the lighter skinned races that were cursed.

    Japheth was the progenitor of the caucuses or the light skinned races as in the original Indio Aryan races and spread through Asia. Many were all so known as “Orientals” which means from the east.

    Shem was the progenitor of the original Semites. They spoke Aramaic languages, as in Babylonian, Assyrian, Arabic and Hebrew amongst others.

    Also, Canaan was the progenitor of the Canaanites, They lived between Egypt and Syria along the eastern Mediterranean. Olive complected people, or as some would say sun-kissed.

    As they spread out you can pretty much see who is from whom.

    So, the Dutch were wrong, and, they knowingly put forth a falsehood to increase their commerce in humanity. The same with all of the other slave traders. And they had the leaders of the churches blessing this commerce.

    The reason you see such disdain for minorities, on June 18th 1452, Pope Nicholas v issued the Papal Bull, Dum Diversas!

    This started the crusades and was used by the Dutch to start the slave trade to subjugate what they considered unchristian savages. Also to use them for slavery to start conquering the new world and using slaves for it’s transformation.

    Look no further than this, this is the driving force of everything you see today.

  22. By the way, most of the above comment is from a paper I wrote 20 years ago. And we won’t even get into American Nazis, the German Bund.

  23. Lester, l hope when finished with Putman’s effort you will give us your take on it along with conclusions you may have reached on the topic(s) treated therein.

  24. Dr. Kennedy:

    Thank you for your thoughtful review of my book, Marse: A Psychological Portrait of the Southern Slave Master and His Legacy of White Supremacy. I truly appreciate your taking the time to read it and share your views. For the record, I am a psychologist, not a psychiatrist. I am signing up for your blog.

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