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John Marszalek: How should the country mark the sesquicentennial?

By John Marszalek

Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Mississippi State University

When the Civil War Centennial occurred in the 1960s, it ran into the crisis the nation was facing regarding Civil Rights. While the Civil War destroyed slavery, the racism of that period remained and intensified in the years that followed. The result was Jim Crow Segregation and the national insistence that the freedmen and women and their descendants must remain second class citizens. That attitude persisted into the 1960s.

In the 1960s, therefore, organizers of the Centennial naturally saw it only as a celebration of white sectional togetherness. There was no room for black Americans, except in the then traditional menial roles. The American South, already facing the upheaval in race relations which would culminate in the destruction of the walls of separation, would not stand for an integrated celebration of something as central to its identity as "The War Between the States."

This proved more than unfortunate, not only for the nation, but also specifically for the devotees of the Civil War. A golden opportunity was lost. The Civil War had to be celebrated as a white-only event, lest it infringe on the segregation that had tragically grown out of that very event which had ended black slavery. Blacks were not welcome at Centennial events and thus there was little incentive for them to participate.

What then can the Sesquicentennial do?

Those organizing it can let it be known that they want everyone included. "Lost Cause" interpretations must be put aside, and the true history of the four year event and the Reconstruction period which came from it must be presented. Reenacting battles has its place, but it must not be the only way to view what happened between 1861-1865. If there is a reenactment, it must include black and white soldiers and civil populace. There must be recognition that it was only the existence of slavery that allowed something like this war to take place. Moral equivalency: the heroism of the common soldier on both sides has its place, but the reality of what the sides were battling about can not be denied, Lost Cause mythology about Confederate heroes and Federal villains can not be at the center of it all, rather a fair minded objective reality must be presented.

Conversely, African Americans can take control of their central destiny in the Civil War. This was the time when the evil of slavery ended, and blacks, in theory if not in practice, gained the rights of citizenship. African Americans can join in the celebrations and help make them more historically accurate.

The essence of the Sesquicentennial must be education. Use the opportunity to promulgate the facts about this event, demonstrate its impact on the nation then and now, and show Americans the numerous ways this war affected society, black and white. It was not romantic; it was brutal. But, it did result in the hesitating return to the premise of the equality of all people. It is about time that that truth shine forth.

By John Marszalek  | November 15, 2010; 2:40 PM ET
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