I remember the Civil War centennial. I was a mere lad at the time, but images remain. There was enthusiasm throughout the country, but nowhere more than in South Carolina, where it all began.
As historian Robert Cook has written in his book, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965, the commemoration nearly collapsed out of poor leadership and misguided enthusiasm. But the greatest threat, of course, was that it coincided with the infancy of the civil rights movement and it was simply impossible to reconcile the commemoration and the movement.
Cook writes: “The centennial was built on a racially exclusive interpretation of the Civil War era. This interpretation denied agency to blacks and downplayed the significance of those events, notably emancipation and Lincoln’s use of African-American troops.”
Throughout the segregated South of 1961-1965, local commemoration groups used the event to galvanize white resistance to desegregation. That was never truer than in this state, where the General Assembly raised the Confederate flag atop the Statehouse dome in 1961. Legislators said at the time that it was part of the Civil War commemoration. But that commemoration ended in 1965, and the flag remained. It did not come down until 2000, and then only after a bitter dispute within the state that drew nationwide ridicule and brought out the worst elements among us. In 2000, the passions and symbols of the Civil War still had the power to divide.
That was even truer in 1961. In April of that year, the Civil War Centennial Commission held its national meeting at the Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston. A member of the New Jersey delegation was a black woman who had been appointed to the job for the specific purpose of catching the Holy City at its worst behavior. Her presence caught the town and the conference off guard.
As expected, the hotel refused to accommodate the black delegate. The NAACP and the media jumped in and an obscure commission meeting became a national incident.
The issue was kicked all the way up to the White House, where President John F. Kennedy’s staff engineered a compromise, moving the meeting from the Francis Marion Hotel to the desegregated Charleston Navy Yard. In another predictable turn, a rump of Southern delegates seceded from the commission and held their own meeting a few blocks down King Street at the Fort Sumter Hotel.
Now here we are, 50 years later and days away from the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession, on Dec. 20, 1860. There seems to be little national interest in the commemoration of that event or the war that saved the Union, ended slavery, and defined the American nation. But in Charleston the interest is intense and building. The question is: What form will that interest take?
Over the last two weeks, we have gotten a glimpse of what the next four years may hold. On Dec. 3-4, the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust, in conjunction with the Lowcountry Sesquicentennial Commission, presented “Secession and Legacy,” a series of six lectures by a group of distinguished scholars, including Pulitzer Prize-winner Mark Neely. The six offered a fascinating look at the politics and personalities, the calculations and miscalculations that culminated in secession, and the ways Americans have interpreted that fateful decision over the last 150 years.
It is part of a four-year program of observance and commemoration that will look at the Civil War from the Northern, Southern, and black points of view, according to Robert Rosen, chairman of the Historical Trust. That by itself represents an important breakthrough. Fifty years ago there was no black point of view. Clearly, some would like to keep it that way.
On the day this prestigious colloquium kicked off, The Post and Courier reported that the Confederate Heritage Trust had their own plans for the sesquicentennial, namely the S.C. Secession Gala to be held on the night of Dec. 20. The evening would include a play highlighting important moments from the signing of the Ordinance of Secession and a party afterward.
A spokesman for the Confederate Heritage Trust called the secession movement in South Carolina “a demonstration of freedom.” He denied that secession had anything to do with slavery. Presumably, the evening’s dramaturgy will have no mention of the Declaration of Immediate Causes, in which the signers of the Ordinance of Secession state that their reason for leaving the Union was the defense of slavery.
The NAACP declares that it will demonstrate against the Secession Gala at Gaillard Auditorium. For all the progress we have made in the last 50 years — and we have made a lot — there is still a widespread ignorance of history and a willingness to repeat it. And some people still think of the Civil War commemoration as an opportunity to divide and antagonize people.