One of the things that I am trying to explain in the final chapter of my Crater manuscript is why a reenactment of the battle did not take place in July 1964, given the popularity of two previous reenactments and reunions in 1903 and 1937. A closer look at the Civil War Centennial reveals a contested landscape between Americans who wished to celebrate a “Reconciliationist” and heroic interpretation of the war and the impact of the Civil Rights Movement and its reminder of a long-forgotten “Emancipationist” account of the war.
This conflict emerged in its clearest form at the end of 1962 as the Kennedy administration tried to figure out the best way (politically speaking) to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation without offending Southern whites who would be needed to help reelect the president in 1964. As late as December 26 Kennedy was handed the text of a proposed statement to be read on January 1, 1963:
Whereas Negro citizens are still being denied rights guaranteed by the constitution and laws of the United States, and the securing of these rights is one of the greatest tasks of our democracy:
Now, therefore, I, John F. Kennedy, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim that the Emancipation Proclamation expresses our Nation’s policy, founded on justice and morality, and that it is therefore fitting and proper to commemorate the centennial of the historic Emancipation Proclamation throughout the year 1863.
Kennedy refused to issue the statement, and instead decided to invite prominent African-American leaders to the White House which would minimize the damage to white constituents in the South and possibly lead to coverage by magazines such as Jet and Ebony. So, what did Kennedy do on New Year’s Day? He attended the Orange Bowl game in Miami and watched Joe Namath lead the University of Alabama to victory. This was the very same school that had to be ordered by the courts to admit Autherine Lacy in 1956 as the first black student. White students rioted on campus and in response the school suspended Lacy rather than the students responsible for the violence.
What does it say about a country when its own president refuses to honor the central event of our Civil War?