Donald Trump and Nikki Haley show us America’s ignorance about the Civil War

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

When America fails to teach society about its history, you get the Republican Party and its attitudes toward the Civil War. This country is awfully ignorant when it comes to American history because that history is not taught correctly, truthfully or with any context or sensitivity. And this is how Republican presidential candidates can exploit a public lack of knowledge and just say whatever they want and proclaim things that never happened.

Donald Trump — the former president who aspires to retake the White House and stay there forever — recently said the Civil War could have been negotiated and President Abraham Lincoln should have done more to stop it.

“So many mistakes were made. See, there was something I think could have been negotiated, to be honest with you,” Trump said at an Iowa campaign stop. “I think you could have negotiated that. All the people died. So many people died.”

Trump, regarded by absolutely no one as a student of history, signed legislation in 2017 honoring the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass, the formerly enslaved statesman and abolitionist. “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice,” Trump said.

And in a recent town hall rally in New Hampshire, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley failed to mention slavery as the cause of the Civil War. “Yeah, I mean, I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run – the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do,” Haley said.  

And back in 2010, Haley told the Sons of Confederate Veterans that the Civil War was “tradition versus change,” and said states have a constitutional right to secede — which is not true.

A knowledge of history is important. The Civil War was fought over slavery, which the Southern states wanted to maintain and therefore seceded from the Union. Some would have you believe the war between the states was all about states’ rights and economics, which only makes sense if you believe states had a right to kidnap, brutalize, rape and own Black people and profit from their free forced labor.

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union and started the Civil War. In its Declaration of Secession, the Palmetto State gave as its reason for leaving “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.” The declaration also said the Northern states “have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery…. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

A potent symbol of slavery, the confederacy and white supremacy is the confederate flag. The confederate flag first flew at the South Carolina Capitol in 1962 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and in opposition to civil rights. Black folks had demanded the removal of the flag for years.

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As governor of South Carolina, Haley removed the confederate flag from the state capitol in Columbia in 2015, but only after the white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof murdered eight Black people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Black activist Bree Newsome Bass took matters into her own hands, climbing the flagpole and tearing down the flag, in any case.

One of the founders of Mother Emanuel was Denmark Vesey, who had led a thwarted slave revolt in Charleston in 1822 and was executed. The church was burned to the ground because of its affiliation with Vesey.

According to Haley, the confederate flag stood for “service, sacrifice and heritage” until Roof “hijacked” it. Haley is also a woman of Indian descent whose father taught at Voorhees College, an HBCU, and who attended a white “segregation academy” — a private school formed in the 1960s to resist integration and keep out Black children.

Haley is not a white woman, the confederate flag never stood for anything good, and the Civil War was all about whether white Southerners could continue to chain Black people up in their backyards. Some people may think it doesn’t matter. But don’t let them fool you, because history matters. They say that history is told from the standpoint of the victors, and those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.

As the Gullah-Geechee people say, If oonuh ent kno weh oonuh dah gwine, oonuh should kno weh oonuh come f’um. Translation: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you come from. And as the Akan (Ghana) proverb says, Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi, which means “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.” History tells the narrative, giving us an understanding of what happened in the past to help us make sense of the present and solve the many problems we face.

If you think history is not important, look no further than the culture war taking place in America, the book bans and memory laws that criminalize the teaching or reading of Black history in schools. Right-wing textbooks describe slavery as “Black immigration.” In Florida, they are teaching students that Black people benefited from slavery. White supremacist groups such as Moms for Liberty are leading the charge to plunge our children into ignorance of history, but this is nothing new.   

Over a century ago, the pro-confederate groups who were responsible for building confederate statues across the South reshaped textbooks, emphasizing the Lost Cause and glorifying a white supremacist view of slavery and Reconstruction. United Daughters of the Confederacy made pro-confederate and pro-KKK propaganda a part of the textbooks. In the last century, textbooks across the South followed a white-friendly narrative that sidelined Black people, depicted them as happy with their second-class status, downplayed slavery, and presented enslaved Black people as indentured servants. “It should be noted that slavery was the earliest form of social security in the United States,” read a 1961 Alabama history textbook.

The impact of this indoctrination and miseducation is clear. A Southern Poverty Law Center study found that schools are not teaching students about slavery, and students have no clue about the impact of the institution on America and race relations. Only 8% of high school seniors knew slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Fewer than half knew that slavery was legal in all the colonies before the American Revolution, and most did not know that a constitutional amendment ended slavery.

And the current attacks on Black history will only make students more ignorant of their history. There is much at stake. Hiding the crimes of history by whitewashing the textbooks is an attempt to silence calls for reparations and restorative justice. If slavery did not exist — if the books tell us nothing wrong was done — then they will have you believe there is nothing or no one to pay. And the Civil War was about Southern heritage or taxes or something like that.  

David A. Love is a journalist and commentator who writes investigative stories and op-eds on a variety of issues, including politics, social justice, human rights, race, criminal justice and inequality. Love is also an instructor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, where he trains students in a social justice journalism lab. In addition to his journalism career, Love has worked as an advocate and leader in the nonprofit sector, served as a legislative aide, and as a law clerk to two federal judges. He holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Harvard University and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He also completed the Joint Programme in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. His portfolio website is

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This op-ed article discusses the ignorance and misinformation surrounding American history, particularly in relation to the Civil War. It criticizes the Republican Party and its presidential candidates for their lack of understanding of historical events and the causes of the Civil War. The article highlights examples of politicians making inaccurate statements about the Civil War and its significance.

The author emphasizes the importance of understanding history, particularly in relation to the Civil War which was fought over slavery. The article also discusses the controversy surrounding the confederate flag, and the efforts to whitewash history through textbooks and educational curriculums. The impact of miseducation and indoctrination on students’ understanding of history is also highlighted.

The author, David A. Love, is a journalist and commentator with a background in investigative reporting and social justice issues. He holds degrees in East Asian Studies and Law, and is an instructor at Rutgers School of Communication and Information. The article ends with a call to recognize the importance of history in understanding the present and solving the problems faced by society.

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