J. Craig Scherf, the writer of the July 12 “In Response” column, “Claiming Confederate flag a symbol of white supremacy unjustified,” apparently did not like my column on the Confederate battle flag. My column had been published June 12 under the headline, “Confederate flag never about upholding states’ rights.”
I was not surprised. As recently as 2018, Scherf proudly described himself in the Superior Telegram as “an unreconstructed Southerner,” a phrasing that, in light of the white-supremacist assault on Reconstruction, struck me as either a telling admission or extraordinarily tone deaf.
I found Scherf's response to my commentary fascinating on a number of levels.
He suggested I want to “prohibit” the Confederate battle emblem. He overlooked the explicit statement in my column that people have “every right” to continue displaying it. He characterized as “pure Marxism” — apparently a damning takedown — my observation that the nation’s “deep-seated racism” has led to significant inequities and will require “radical change.”
Yet it was his baseless accusation that I was “quite mistaken” about the Southern states’ hostility to the principle of states’ rights that was perhaps the most perplexing of his myriad claims.
Scherf did not deny that white Southerners opposed non-slaveholding states’ right to not enforce the 1793 and 1850 Fugitive Slave Acts (or the earlier fugitive slave clause); rather, he offered a tortured justification of the slaveholders’ choice to demand federal action while untenably concluding that they were “consistently insistent” in upholding states’ rights. Scherf needs to be honest about the logic of his position. As Eric Foner, probably the leading historian of the 19th-century United States, elegantly put it, “Southern leaders” were usually “strong defenders of states’ rights and local autonomy,” but in 1850 they unambiguously announced that the “security of slavery was more important to them than states’-rights consistency.”
To draw an analogy to an issue now in the news, the Southern states supported states’ rights in much the same way Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports local control of schools. DeVos, who for years has claimed to favor the devolution of school authority to states or local communities, recently joined President Donald Trump in calling for the federal government to compel in-person instruction across the country in the fall. Like white Southerners who opposed other states’ provision of sanctuary to enslaved people, DeVos was all for devolved authority when it served her ideological and/or material interests; the second it didn’t, however, she, like the Southern states, turned.
Put simply, one is either a supporter of states’ rights, which means supporting the rights of states even when they contravene your interests, or one is not. In his column, Scherf seemed to want to have it both ways. He can't.
Scott Laderman teaches history at the University of Minnesota Duluth.