What We Mean When We Talk About States’ Rights

This week sees the 150th anniversary of the secession of South Carolina?the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. And of course, the anniversary brings with it the predictable repetition of myths: the South seceded because those Northern elites wouldn’t let them govern themselves! It was about states’ rights and freedom. Right?

Author Edward Ball, who comes from a slave-owning southern family, reminds us that that’s not exactly the case. Simply read the states’ secession declarations: from Georgia to Mississippi, and of course, South Carolina, they all name continuing slavery as their top concern.

all notes that just as the Southern states flattered themselves that they were enacting a new American Revolution, so too, the Tea Party crowd evokes that same revolutionary imagery around state freedom.

And it’d be funny if it didn’t pack such political punch. When Governor Rick Perry wonders aloud whether Texas could secede if it didn’t like laws of Congress, you can sit back and wonder how long it’ll be before he comes back to Washington for help with his ballooning state deficit.

But it’s not necessarily what happens that’s as important as what’s said. Some of the people pushing lawsuits against Obama’s health care plan, are also pushing for a constitutional amendment that would give states the right to overturn federal law. They too call it a strike for freedom.

And while it’s tempting to laugh at Washington politicians grandstanding about Washington power while they run for DC office, it’s hard not to important to remember that states’ rights as a rallying cry has a long and nasty history, and one based more often than not in race. From secession to integration to busing schoolchildren, politicians and public figures have trumpeted the idea of “states’ rights” to keep those pesky liberals from telling them how to treat people of color.

And now once again the specter of nullification raises its head, and though it’s unlikely to pass, it’s worth asking whether this has more to do with the color of the skin of the man who passed the bill than any contents of the health care legislation.

LAURA FLANDERS is the host of GRITtv, which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. More…9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, public television and online at GRITv.org.


Laura Flanders interviews forward-thinking people about the key questions of our time on The Laura Flanders Show, a nationally syndicated radio and television program also available as a podcast. A contributing writer to The Nation, Flanders is also the author of six books, including The New York Times best-seller, BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species.  She is the recipient of a 2019 Izzy Award for excellence in independent journalism, the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing women’s and girls’ visibility in media and a 2020 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship for her reporting and advocacy for public media. lauraflanders.org