Justice: Reclaiming the Truth (part 2)

(Part 1 of this reflection can be found below in yesterday’s posting).

In essence, the reconciliation of white Northerners and Southerners took place on the backs of, and at the expense of, African Americans. Instead of reuniting on the basis of a common commitment to racial equity and true democracy, white Americans reunited on the basis of white supremacy and selective amnesia. The North and the federal government abandoned Reconstruction, and the Southern white elite were free to reassert racial control through a systematic reign of terror that included disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, the convict leasing system (essentially slavery by another name), and an epidemic of lynchings.

African Americans were not blind to what was happening. African American leaders like Frederick Douglass called attention to the fact that the sectional reconciliation love fest and the upsurge of Civil War nostalgia were occurring at the same time that African American gains were being rolled back and the redemptive meaning and promise of the war were being betrayed. They realized that reconciliation on these terms was bad news for them. And they noted with bitterness that Southern Civil War veterans who had fought to destroy the Union were being treated infinitely better than African American veterans who had risked their lives to defend it. But while African Americans kept their understanding of the war alive through Emancipation Day celebrations and reunions of African American veterans, their voices were drowned out. Not a single African American veteran was invited to the huge 50th anniversary commemoration of Gettysburg.

Lincoln was committed to reconciliation with the South, but he was also committed to protecting the rights of African Americans. Lincoln’s views on what a just solution to America’s race problem required had evolved enormously during his life, and he had come to realize that the Emancipation Proclamation was just a start. Given the Southern white elite’s commitment to maintaining racial control, these two imperatives were bound to come into conflict, and Lincoln, had he lived, would have had to strike a balance. While there is no way to know, my guess is that he would have come down on the side of racial justice. In his absence, the pendulum swung decisively in the other direction.

As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it is high time that we come to terms with its true history and meaning. It is time to face honestly the fact that the war was about redressing our country’s seminal fatal flaw, racism, and that this goal is very far from being achieved. Indeed, it has barely been attempted. Until we acknowledge this fact and act on it, we will continue to dishonor Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ legacies, and will continue to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of Americans – Northern and Southern, African American and white – who gave their lives in the Civil War died in vain.

Stephen Babb

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