The Civil War Sesquicentennial and the Civil Rights Movement

This semester I am helping my Prof with his senior level undergraduate Public History class. I have no grading responsibilities I am just putting together the Wikipedia page the students are creating and sitting in on the class discussions. (Great class I throughly enjoy it)

The student’s are making a Wikipedia page on the Civil War Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) they are looking at how the event is celebrated, acknowledged and noted. They are pulling up some rather interesting things which make the class fun. But I can’t stop thinking about the way in which we (2013 people) look at the Civil War and how that has got to have changed since the 100th anniversary and previous marking points, because of the Civil Rights Movement.

I just read Renee C. Romano and Leigh Raiford’s edited collection The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2006) for my graduate class on Myth and Memory. This book argues that the consensus narrative about the Civil Right’s movements depoliticizes and sanitizes the movements and discourages further activism with a sort of”Mission Accomplished” tone. This made me think about how other consensus narratives are taken out of their political frameworks and sanitized. Marita Sturken’s book Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero,( Durham: Duke University Press, 2007) similarly argues that ,through consumption and tourism, the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11 are depoliticized and interpreted as individual emotional events rather than results of global and national political issues. But what does this have to do with the Civil War Sesquicentennial?

One of the major deterrents the UG public history students are facing is that they have to look for the Civil War Anniversary events. While this sounds like a basic task for any research project what makes this unique is that one would assume a 150th anniversary event (whatever that means) for a national events as big and as popular as the Civil War (has been..)would be all over the place. (Now we do live in Florida, not Virginia we are not the epicenter of Civil War memory, so that is something to consider) But the main issues here is that the Civil War has seen better days.

Ken Burns did a great job at brining American’s to Civil War, but the love he fostered did not last long. Why not? Why don’t Americans love the Civil War anymore? (This is not to say that 150 events are not taking place, they are but they are not yielding the turn outs their hosts intended)

See, Two White Guys With Excellent Beards.

See, Two White Guys With Excellent Beards.

What is different? I argue that Americans have realized a the connection between the Civil War and the Civil Right’s movement, and the addition of the CR Movement politically charged CW memory. The Civil War is no longer seen as a bunch of white guys fighting over “States Rights” (pronounced Stat’s Rha-heights!) rather it is about a longer struggle of racial equality in the United States. (Dressing in the Gray drab and prancing around in a field is not nearly as fun when you realize that you might be a racist)

There is an excellent Mitchell and Webb (brilliant British Sketch show) skit where they attempt to stage a battle reenactment between the Cavilers and Roundheads, finding this boring they switch to the “Democratic Forces of the Republic of Congo” and “Rebel Militia Men Repressing Sudanese Tribal Interests”. Which of course does not work because they dress is black-face and realize how political charged (racist) the idea was. Watch it here -http://youtu.be/e6cpU_iIqLs

Now lets look at the Smithsonian’s exhibit on the Civil Rights (50yrs) and Civil War (150yrs) (http://americanhistory.si.edu/exhibitions/changing-america). I was lucky enough to see this exhibit when I was in D.C. over the Summer, its pretty neat. It is called “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963” and looks at both events, placing them in the same narrative.

Tying these two events together insures that the Civil War cannot be seen without the lens of the Civil Right’s movement. It forces us to be aware of the political and social implications of war. Though Romano and Reighford would argue the CRM has not gained its politics back I think the CW is getting there. Take a look at major motion pictures like Twelve Years a Slave (which is book, read the book) and Django where large audiences are asked to face the horrors of Slavery in America.

I know, from my students, that The Civil War is still taught in middle schools and high schools as a an issues of “States Rights”  (Stat’s Rha-heights), but I think that the larger American culture is waking up to the actual racial issues of the Civil War and are becoming uneasy about looking at the CW simply in terms of personal-emotional events or just a good time in the field.

Where is the Civil War? It is over there with the Civil Rights Movement. And thinking about that makes people uncomfortable because deep down they know both events are largely unfinished.

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