Civil War at 150: Are we whitewashing slavery?

OPINION - As pivotal as the Civil War is in our nation's complex history, African-Americans appear less enthusiastic about the sesquicentennial...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

One hundred and fifty years ago today shots rang out at Fort Sumter in South Carolina to launch the Civil War. Historically, that’s one of the only facts not hotly debated when it comes to Civil War history. As sesquicentennial commemorations get underway, primarily throughout the South, many assume it will be a “whites only” affair.

In December, a ”>“secession ball” was held in South Carolina. There was a re-enactment of the swearing in of Jefferson Davis as provisional president of the Confederate States of America in Montgomery in February. Several canons went off in Charleston this morning to mark the Civil War’s beginning. Battle re-enactments are planned there as well as in Pennsylvania and other states. Over the next four years, there will be a flurry of more publicized Civil War commemoration activities. After all, for Civil War buffs, re-enactments especially are nothing new. It’s been a robust hobby for decades actually.

Slideshow: Blacks and whites square off on secession

As pivotal as the Civil War is in our nation’s complex history, African-Americans appear less enthusiastic about the sesquicentennial. For many, slavery continues to be an understandably difficult period of history to process. It is, however, necessary to process it. And while organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans do insist that states’ rights and not slavery was at the center of the Civil War, they are, thankfully, largely in the minority now. One of the most encouraging developments of the sesquicentennial has been the growing acknowledgment that slavery was indeed at the core of the start of the Civil War and, that, in itself, represents tremendous progress.

Of course, in a nation where perpetual racial discord makes for sexier news copy than any positive steps towards racial reconciliation, we have heard less about the efforts of many Civil War sesquicentennial organizations to incorporate African-Americans in their programming. John Culpepper, head of the Georgia Civil War Commission and founder of the Tri-State Civil War 150th Commemoration Association, which connects Georgia with Alabama and Tennessee, is one of many organizers who, according to USA Today, say “the 150th anniversary will be an inclusive look at the Civil War, with an increased emphasis on the efforts of African-Americans and women in the conflict.”

It is particularly noteworthy that many of these efforts are not the mandate of federal or state funding. Because of the bleak economy, most sesquicentennial activities have had to turn to independent funding sources. In fact, Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s efforts to introduce the Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission Act, which would have provided federal dollars for such programming, have been unsuccessful. Therefore, the desire for greater inclusion is a positive sign of the times that shouldn’t go unacknowledged.

The Daily Beast: Selling the Civil War to African-Americans

It’s a far cry from fifty years ago when the nation, especially the South, was embroiled in another battle in the ongoing struggle of African-Americans for guaranteed civil and human rights in this nation. In 1961, Mississippi governor Ross Barnett donned a confederate general’s uniform and led a parade that celebrated segregation and racial subjugation.
That’s not quite the tide of the times today. Current Mississippi Governor and staunch Republican Haley Barbour surprised Jackson’s Clarion-Ledger with his statements that “Slavery was the primary, central, cause of secession” and that “The Civil War was necessary to bring about the abolition of slavery” as well as “Abolishing slavery was morally imperative and necessary.”

Barbour has hardly been characterized as a friend to the black agenda and, right now, has yet to pardon two African-American sisters despite pleas from the NAACP and other organizations so his statements are beyond profound.

With an African-American president in office, the Civil War sesquicentennial is a prime opportunity for black Americans to raise timely issues of race that are still rooted in not just centuries of enslavement but also in the Jim Crow era. One hundred and fifty years later, there has been a lot of progress for African-Americans but many obstacles still remain. If we keep sweeping those issues under the rug, how are we ever to attack and eradicate the problem?

The truth of the matter is that there are still African-Americans who object to any mention of slavery. Yes, they want it to be brought out in the context of the Civil War but they do not wish to truly examine and engage it. The mere appearance of a person within a historical time frame dressed as a slave still enrages many African-Americans regardless of the context. If we are to gain the most out of the next four years as history commands us to revisit the Civil War, we can’t just plan activities for the war’s end, when slavery was abolished. Instead, we have to get uncomfortable and relive the pain of our ancestors through this dark period of our history in order to come out stronger as a people.

Like it or not, the Civil War is very much a part of African-American history and we can’t simply play the background by reacting to what twisted organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans do. We must be proactive and tell our own stories. The history of the U.S. colored troops is one that we must honor. Our enslaved ancestors were no bystanders in their fight for freedom. We owe it to them and to ourselves to not let history pass us by. If we aren’t going to tell the story ourselves, then, really, what is the point?