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Civil rights and the Civil War

As we approach the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, Robert Cook explains how the 1961 centennial commemorations were undermined by racial tensions

Published: March 19, 2011 at 4:45 pm
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In the spring of 1961 Americans prepared to mark the 100th anniversary of their nation’s bloodiest conflict by re-enacting the bombardment of Fort Sumter. The Confederate attack on this federal outpost in the harbour at Charleston, South Carolina, triggered four years of fierce fighting that saved the Union and freed four million black slaves at a cost of 620,000 combatants on both sides.

Leading officials of the US Civil War Centennial Commission (CWCC) had scheduled their agency’s annual meeting in Charleston to coincide with the Fort Sumter re-enactment. Assuming that the centennial would be a whites-only affair, they were surprised when New Jersey’s state centennial agency demanded that one of its delegates, a black woman named Madaline Williams, be accommodated in the same hotel as the commission’s other guests. Charleston was a racially segregated town; predictably the hotel could find no space for Mrs Williams.

Sensing that the New Jerseyans were aiming to torpedo their lily-white heritage bonanza, CWCC officials insisted that they had no control over a state’s racial customs. The story then hit the front pages of the nation’s press, forcing the new president, John F Kennedy, to criticise the agency publicly. Wiser heads on the commission eventually prevailed and the delegates reconvened at Charleston’s desegregated US Navy base. But the damage was done. The Civil War centennial was a national embarrassment before the event began. “Just where in the first place the idea of the Civil War Centennial came from we don’t know,” mused one commentator, “but we suspect the Russians.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The centennial had been planned as a means of steeling ordinary Americans in the Cold War struggle against communism. Several high-profile heritage projects were designed to showcase America’s commitment to liberty. The 1947–49 Freedom Train, a travelling collection of the nation’s canonical documents (including the constitution) was a prime example of how public elites sought to use their version of history to build support for the anti-communist crusade.

The anniversary of a sanguinary civil war may have seemed an unlikely subject for national unity, particularly as that conflict had left southern whites embittered by defeat. Happily for national planners in the 1950s the process of North-South reconciliation in the late 19th century had healed many wounds, especially those caused by Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation policy and the deployment of 180,000 black troops against the rebel Confederacy.

By 1900 the USA was an industrial powerhouse and an emerging player on the international stage. Most northern whites, beset by problems arising from rapid socio-economic change, endorsed the ex-Confederates’ view that African Americans were an inferior race and that the South’s new system of statutory segregation was best for both races.

Black leaders and veterans tried to keep the memory of black service to the Union alive but by the time the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington in 1922, it was not so much Lincoln the Great Emancipator who was remembered but Lincoln the charitable advocate of sectional reconciliation. When Walter Williams, a Texan widely believed to be the last surviving Civil War veteran died in 1959, President Dwight D Eisenhower issued a special statement in which he observed that: “[t]he wounds of the deep and bitter dispute which once divided our nation have long since healed, and a united America in a divided world now holds up on a larger canvas the cherished traditions of liberty and justice for all.”

Once a vessel for myriad internal hatreds, the Civil War had been rebranded in national memory as the moment when America had been reunited – and a modern superpower, the Leader of the Free World, was born.

Ulysses S Grant III, grandson of the great Union commander, and his deputy, Karl Betts, a public relations professional, were the leading figures on the CWCC, established in 1957 as a temporary agency under the remit of the National Park Service. Both men were rightwing anti-communists who conceived the centennial as a national pageant that would genuinely excite their compatriots while simultaneously educating them about the brave deeds and patriotism of their forebears. To those who feared that the centennial might be troubled by rising African-American protest against segregation, Karl Betts retorted that blacks had been loyal to the pro-slavery Confederacy. “A lot of fine Negro people,” he said, “loved life as it was in the old South.”

By 1961 southern whites were ready for the party. Politics played a vital role in their embrace of the centennial project. Celebrating the southern states’ secession from the Union made perfect sense to the segregationists who dominated the region’s state centennial agencies. What better way to mobilise grass roots opposition to court-ordered desegregation and black civil rights activism than to remind ordinary whites of their ancestors’ uncompromising resistance to federal tyranny?

In February whites in Montgomery, Alabama – the Confederacy’s first capital and more recently the scene of a world-renowned bus boycott led by a black preacher named Martin Luther King − participated en masse in celebrations to mark the centenary of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration as Confederate president. They revelled in beard-growing contests, dressed up in period costume, bought tickets for a Confederate belle beauty contest and flocked to see a week-long secession pageant culminating in a grand fireworks display.

State judge Walter Jones was hugely impressed by the community turnout. The events in Montgomery, he thought, had given Alabama whites “a deeper appreciation of the things the Confederacy fought for, and helped them to realise that unrestrained federal power is destroying this nation.”

In fact, there was so much enthusiasm for the Confederacy in the South that one anxious American serviceman told President Kennedy that the centennial “could endanger our country so great it might cause the fall of our great nation”.

The combination of neo-Confederate theatre and the embarrassing fiasco at Charleston proved disastrous for the centennial, discrediting the event in the eyes of white liberals and blacks. The coup de grâce was administered by national media outrage at a re-enactment of the first battle of Bull Run in July. The event, staged with the CWCC’s backing, attracted thousands of paying spectators who doubtless enjoyed what they saw. But the sight of souvenir stalls parked on a field stained with the blood of dead Americans sickened watching journalists already appalled by the ease with which segregationists had co-opted the centennial. That summer Grant and Betts were levered off the commission and replaced by two sober professional historians, Allan Nevins and James I Robertson.

Nevins, one of the most respected historians of his day, was a Kennedy ally. He could be counted on to turn the centennial around. Together he and his young assistant took the heat out of the exercise, emphasising education over pageantry and accommodating African American concerns over the event.

In September 1962 the reorganised commission hosted an event at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Although on this occasion Nevins chose to equate emancipation with the anti-communist crusade for human freedom – rather than the intensifying fight for racial justice at home – major civil rights campaigns in 1963 and 1964 made him unresponsive to southern fears that the CWCC had become a mouthpiece for integration.

When it ended in April 1965 most Americans had forgotten about the Civil War centennial. Southern whites’ interest had waned (the absence of battlefield victories to celebrate contributed to this) and Americans in general were preoccupied with ongoing civil rights protests and a new war in Indochina. The segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace had tried to make political capital out of the centennial by appearing at the Gettysburg centenary but by then many Americans were ready to acknowledge Martin Luther King’s contention, rendered memorably in his ‘Dream’ speech at the March on Washington in August 1963, that the Civil War was unfinished business.

Remembering the war today

Despite President Obama's reluctance to take a lead on the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary), many Civil War-related events are being planned for the next four years. The Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission, backed by generous legislative funding, is sponsoring a series of public conferences on key issues relating to the Civil War. These include symposia on the role of race and slavery (held at Norfolk State University in September 2010) and another on military topics to be held at Virginia Tech in May 2011. Pennsylvania will send a travelling Civil War exhibition into each of its counties, while several states, including New Jersey and Ohio, have established informative sesquicentennial websites.

Numerous local initiatives, intended to promote tourism as well as education, are in the pipeline. These include Atlanta’s efforts to rebrand the Cyclorama, a panoramic painting depicting General Sherman’s final assault on the city. Rightwing groups are also mobilising to commemorate secession. One member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is planning to hold a ball in Charleston to coincide with the attack on Fort Sumter. In contrast to 1961, however, southern blacks are likely to protest against any event that fails to make the connection between secession and slavery.

Although the 150th anniversary will have less of an impact in Britain, grass roots interest has been heightened by books such as Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire [reviewed in our February issue]. A conference will be held at the British Library, and the University of Sussex is hosting a public lecture series. Visitors to Liverpool, the English port most closely connected with slavery and cotton, will find many reminders of the city's links to the Civil War, including the construction of two Confederate rams in Birkenhead. The American Civil War may be 150 years old but its ripple effects continue to be felt in the United States and beyond.


Robert Cook is professor of American history at the University of Sussex and author of Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961–1965 (LSU Press, 2007).


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