150 Years After the Civil War, Should We Be Swearing In Jefferson Davis?

Old concerns are given new life as the sesquicentennial approaches

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This week, The New York Times reported on a series of upcoming events that will mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Many of these events, which will include parades, memorials, "a mock swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy," and at least one formal ball, will take place in former Confederate states, and seemingly plan to depict the South's secession as a victory for states' rights over intrusive government. It's a narrative that downplays the role of slavery in the Civil War--something similar happened in April, when the governor of Virginia declared "Confederate History Month" without mentioning slavery in his initial statement--and as the South gears up for its sesquicentennial celebration, old concerns about how to appropriately memorialize the Civil War have risen once again.

  • More Historical Whitewashing  The Times quotes a number of dismayed citizens, including Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina NAACP, who says that the commemorative events feature a lot of "glamorization and sanitization of what really happened," and that Southerners talking about states' rights "are really talking about their idea of one right — to buy and sell human beings." Andrew Young, a former civil rights activist and ambassador to the United Nations, told the Times, "We don't know what to commemorate because we've never faced up to the implications of what the thing was really about ... We had another 100 years of segregation. We've never had our complete reconciliation of the forces that divide us."
  • No, It's Just a Celebration of Independence  The Times also quotes Michael Givens, commander-in-chief of the group Sons of Confederate Veterans, who says, "We in the South, who have been kicked around for an awfully long time and are accused of being racist, we would just like the truth to be known... Our people were only fighting to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence." Jeff Antley, a member of the Sons, adds that seceding Southerners "risked their lives and fortunes to stand for what they believed in, which is self-government... Many people in the South still believe that is a just and honorable cause."
  • How Was the Civil War Not About Slavery?  The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates reprints lengthy passages from the South Carolinian secession ordinance, which makes repeated reference to slavery and complains about the northern states' hostility to the institution. Coates adds, "I think we need to be absolutely clear that 150 years after the defeat of one of the Confederacy, there are still creationists who seek to celebrate the treasonous attempt to raise an entire country based on the ownership of people."
  • This Is Doubleplusungood  At Unfogged, blogger LizardBreath takes issue with "the Orwellian nature of it all." She writes, "If Confederate-worshippers can make it seem aggressively impolite to insist on straightforwardly, obviously true historical facts, then we can't rely on facts to establish anything, which is exactly how politics has been feeling lately."
  • Georgia Comes Around on the Slavery Question  A separate New York Times piece notes that the Georgia Historical Society has finally acknowledged that slavery played a central role in the conflict. The Society plans to install a marker affirming that Georgia's secession was based on Abraham Lincoln's "anti-slavery" policies. "This may be one of the first official recognitions in the state, at least in modern times, that slavery was the overarching reason for secession," the Times notes. Todd Groce, president of the Society, said that "the marker is based on overwhelming evidence from the 1860s, not based on what the apologists said in the 1890s, when former Confederates were backfilling about states' rights."
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