Recently I read “Troubled Commemoration,” an account of the Civil War Centennial by Robert J. Cook, and I learned that I had experienced exactly what the centennial organizers envisioned: an event that promoted tourism and commercial enterprise and, oh yeah, taught a little bit of history as well.Yes, I have noticed that one of the enduring traits of the American love of freedom has been the exclusionary way it is applied to its own citizens, as the tone deafness of Teabaggery makes so abundantly clear. And not for nothing did Gore Vidal refer to us as The United States of Amnesia. Malanowski brings it home:
I also learned that people besides me also had a good centennial (in 1961). Segregationists, for example, were able to turn the centennial of the war into a celebration of the Confederacy. Flying the Confederate battle flag, they used secession as an origination myth for the never-defeated cause of states’ rights, which was the philosophical underpinning of the racist laws and practices they defended...
...the Emancipation Proclamation (did not) have a particularly great centennial. Political leaders in the south made it clear that this great moral landmark had no business being mixed up with a commemoration of the Civil War. So the proclamation had its own ceremony, one that put it in a Cold War context. It was cast as pivotal moment in the cause of global freedom, as something more meaningful in 1962 to Third World people who were emerging from colonialism and who had to choose between east and west, than to black Americans who were fighting for their civil rights. No African-American speakers were even part of the program until Thurgood Marshall, then a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, was added at the last minute.
The only comfort that comes from reading Cook’s book is the realization that thanks to the struggles of so many of our fellow citizens, we live in a much better country today. But 50 years later, as we enter the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we must realize that for those of us who care about history and this particular event, work still remains to be done. There remains a basic ignorance about the Civil War, an ignorance that fosters myths and fabrications, and deforms our understanding of ourselves.Bless their hearts.
For example, when asked about the cause of the war, far too many people will say that there were many reasons. Slavery was one; states rights, tariffs and northern aggression were others. This is sad, because when you read the words spoken by the leaders of the rebellion, when you read their secession ordinances, there is only one reason: slavery — the preservation of slavery, the extension of slavery, the expansion of slavery.
Six hundred thousand Americans did not die for anything as nebulous as states rights or tariffs. They died because slaveholders wanted to preserve their human property and expand their slaveholding empire, and they were willing to demolish the union and bring tragedy to nearly every family in this land in order to protect their right to own human beings.