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Americans have tried to find meaning in the Civil War since it was still being fought.
Books, re-enactments, anniversary commemorations, national battlefields, personal stories, arguments, and political themes that recur generation after generation all try to capture the elusive lessons of conflict.
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The 1961-65 centennial commemoration was one of those efforts, undertaken during a time when the divisions that drove the war erupted in a less bloody, but still searing way for the country.
As the nation this week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the contrast between a country in the midst of civil rights struggles 50 years ago and one that has an African-American President today is sharp.
The commemoration of the early 1960s turned into a new front on an old war. In 2013, there are arguments about the fine points of history, but Gettysburg represents a point of unity, not division.
A half century ago, the nation marked the centenary of Gettysburg amid a convulsion over civil rights and a global debate about the nature of freedom. The commemoration in the central Pennsylvania town came 20 days after Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to block the enrollment of black students at the University of Alabama, 19 days before the murder of the Mississippi civil-rights activist Medgar Evers, 12 days before President John F. Kennedy sent the administration’s Civil Rights bill to Capitol Hill, and five days before the president, standing in a square in Berlin, spoke of freedom for Europe while the battle for freedom in America remained unwon.
Even so, five decades ago, there were big plans for a nationwide, four-year commemoration of the Civil War’s centennial.
But organizers ran into overly enthusiastic Confederate re-enactors on one side and African-American civil rights activists on the other.
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A show of unity?
The desire to put on a Cold War show of national unity that portrayed the Civil War as a tragic chapter in U.S. history that nevertheless impelled the nation forward was undermined and almost sputtered out.
Many Southerners saw it as an opportunity to articulate their version of the war and use it as a weapon in their efforts to fight desegregation. Blacks resisted the mushy nationalistic message that marginalized their role in the war, both in terms of participation and in the war’s causes.
What was planned as a series of national assemblies and local commemorations devolved into disputes over whether a black New Jersey delegate would be able to stay in the hotel in which an assembly was taking part, discomfort over re-enactments in which Southerners cheered as fireworks mimicked the bombing of Fort Sumter, and pressure from civil-rights groups to make the Emancipation Proclamation a central part of the commemoration.
In his 2007 book Troubled Commemoration: the American Civil War Centennial, Robert J. Cook writes that the centennial sought to present a view of the war that represented a consensus that had arisen over the decades. It was a story of the war that was acceptable to both sides — at least to the majority of the white population on both sides.
In this “mythology” of the war, the conflict was presented as a tragic fraternal struggle waged principally over the issue of states’ rights, in which the South fought bravely and was only defeated by the North’s greater manpower and economic strength.
Slavery, according to this view, was a regional institution that wasn’t that bad, and African-Americans were not ready for citizenship when the war ended. Reconstruction was a harmful failure. Finally, the Civil War laid the groundwork for the country’s greatness in the following decades.
This view of the war — which evolved as the ferocious antipathies of the war faded, but some of the underlying issues flared anew — allowed for white unification, Mr. Cook writes, but did so at the cost of the rights of blacks.
Because the Civil War centennial organizers sought a commemoration that would promote national unity, they acquiesced to events that accepted segregation and marginalized blacks. But in trying to put this view forward as the official history, they allowed what Mr. Cook calls the vernacular history to surface.
Many in the South saw it as a chance to display their historic memory of their valor and to use it in their efforts to block integration, Mr. Cook says. In their view, “White Southerners had risen up courageously in defiance of federal authority a hundred years previously. What was to stop their heirs from doing something similar in the modern age?”
One of the ways this was expressed was in sham battles, early forerunners of the enormously popular Civil War re-enactors of today.
By mid-1961, Mr. Cook says, the anti-federal-government tone of some Southern commemorations worried organizers and those in government.
He cites a letter written to President John F. Kennedy by a soldier who reported seeing Confederate flags flown at schools and kids dressed in Confederate uniforms and “using the term Yankee as if it was taking the Lord himself in vain.”
Just as slavery had been represented as part of a distinctive Southern culture, as well as an engine of its economy, segregation was now represented by some as a part of their history and culture that should be left alone.
That didn’t sit well with many in the North, either because they supported integration or because they saw divisions in the country as undermining national unity needed during the Cold War. “Jim Crow is treason” proclaimed a headline in Saturday Review.
Tensions were exacerbated that year, 1961, when an African-American delegate to the fourth national assembly of the Civil War Centennial Commission in Charleston, S.C., was denied a room in the hotel in which the assembly was being held.
Also planned was a re-enactment of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, with fireworks substituting for the bombardment. Ultimately the assembly was moved to the integrated naval station, but the failure of the Centennial Commission to stand up for the delegate alienated many, as did the re-enactment.
The New York Times described the “whooping and yelling every time a geyser of flame rose to indicate a direct hit” on the fort.
After that, the head of the Centennial Commission, Karl Betts, was ousted, and historians Allan Nevins and James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., took over.
They made the commemoration more academic and less a popular and local event. That kept it from getting out of control, but lost was the public element of the commemoration. Some Southern states were unhappy with the change, because they had spent money promoting the anniversary as a tourist event.
At the same time, some in the South were trying to shape the centennial to their message, African-Americans were pushing a strong counternarrative. Though few blacks were involved in the centennial and many were barely aware of it or scorned it as propaganda that ignored the issue of rights for African-Americans, some civil-rights activists drew on the war as the crucible of their movement.
The 1963 March on Washington, D.C., was not a centennial event, but Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address (as well as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) in his speech.
Echoing Abraham Lincoln’s “Four score and seven years ago” with his opening “Five score years ago,” Mr. King pointed to the Emancipation Proclamation as a promise made — and not kept.
“But 100 years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
But it was a lesser-known speech that crystallized the links among the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, the Gettysburg Address, and the country at the moment of the centennial of the great Pennsylvania battle.
On Memorial Day, 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson traveled to Gettysburg to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle there and to mark the same failure noted by King.
“One hundred years ago, the slave was freed. One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin,” he said. “The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him — we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil — when we reply to the Negro by asking, ‘Patience.’ ”
He continued: “It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock. The solution is in our hands. Unless we are willing to yield up our destiny of greatness among the civilizations of history, Americans — white and Negro together — must be about the business of resolving the challenge which confronts us now.”
That summer Mr. Kennedy, who had introduced a relatively weak civil rights bill earlier in the year, submitted legislation to ban discrimination in public accommodations and to allow Washington to intervene in cases of discrimination. His speech announcing his plan to introduce that legislation echoed some of the lines from the LBJ speech: In a country where those with darker skin face discrimination, “who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed?” he asked. “Who among us would then be content with the counsel of patience and delay? One hundred years of delay have passed.”
By the time the Civil War Centennial wound down at the last assembly in Springfield, Ill., in 1965, there were few southern delegates.
Many battles remained in the civil rights movement.
And two score and 10 years later, they still remain.
Though the world is a different one, and though the President is an African-American, Americans remain deeply divided over race, over states’ rights, over the role of government.
The centennial was a bridge from the Gettysburg Address, which gave meaning to the suffering of the Civil War, to an understanding of the war that embraced the civil-rights struggle that was dividing the country at the time.
The centennial itself didn’t really bring the country to that point — it sought unity, but at the cost of pushing crucial issues to the edges. But the beginnings of that embrace are seen in Mr. Johnson’s words at Gettysburg: “Our nation found its soul in honor on these fields of Gettysburg 100 years ago. We must not lose that soul in dishonor now on the fields of hate.”
Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Lillian Thomas is the city editor of the Post-Gazette.
Contact Lillian Thomas at: email@example.com or 412-263-3566.