How do you commemorate a national trauma that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and the military occupation of a large portion of the national territory? How do you celebrate a historic event that led to the freedom of millions of enslaved captives and a historic broadening of democracy? And what do you do when those two events are one and the same?
Well, maybe we should ask the Germans because, when it comes to our Civil War, we haven't done very well. But for the next four years, we get another chance. The war began in April, 150 years ago, and commemorations of the sesquicentennial will continue until the anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox in April 2015.
In most of the white South, there’s never been much doubt about how to remember the war. It was the lost, but noble, cause, and the white Southerners who waged it were patriots defending their homeland from invasion.
And for a long time treatment of the Civil War in mainstream American culture, even up North, was ruled mostly by a desire not to alienate the white South, as if the rebels still had to be cajoled into staying with the Union. In the early 20th century, a white Southern revisionist version of slavery and the Civil War infected the movies via Birth of a Nation, directed by Kentuckian D.W. Griffith, and Gone with the Wind kept the contagion alive well into the middle of the century.
Of course, the centennial of the war fell during the peak years of the civil rights movement. But those connections were too hot to touch back then. The centennial commemorations mostly stressed national unity and picturesque re-enactments. In its final report to Congress, in 1968, the Civil War Centennial Commission concluded that, "The social, cultural, and economic history of the war era were neglected in favor of drum, bugle, and cannon smoke."
Although legislation has recently been reintroduced to establish a federal commission for the sesquicentennial, currently there isn’t one. And that’s a shame because, 40 years into the post-Jim Crow era, we might finally be able to make sense of the war and its legacy.
Four years before the war began, in the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court ruled that a black man, by definition, could not be a citizen of the U.S. or any of its member states. Three years after the war ended, the states ratified the 14th Amendment, protecting the full citizenship rights of any person born on American soil. The outcome of the Civil War laid the groundwork for what had been “a white man’s country” to become the multiracial, multicultural democracy we now inhabit.
Now, 150 years later, we have an African-American president. But still some of his opponents, including potential Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, and Michele Bachman, promote falsehoods about his birth, as if, like the Dred Scott judges, they can’t comprehend the possibility that this Kenyan-Kansan-Hawaiian could be "one of us."
But he is, and he represents our future. The 2010 census data indicates that, even in the deepest South, the intermingling of the races in America is becoming the reality that generations of white supremacists feared. The New York Times has reported that Mississippi -- the second state to secede from the Union and among the last to desegregate -- is now "home to one of the country's most rapidly expanding multiracial populations, up 70 percent between 2000 and 2010." Among other things, this information suggests that another potential GOP presidential candidate, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who, until very recently, was still playing footsie with the Sons of the Confederacy, is part of the past, even in his own state.
Lincoln didn’t envision any of this when the war began. He didn't even think it was possible. But in the end this is what the bloody struggle wrought. And may that truth keep marching on.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. His novel White Boy was released in May by Apprentice House (www.apprenticehouse.com).