Where Is Alabama’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee?

Becoming Alabama Logo

It’s there, you just have to know where to look for it.  The question of how to commemorate the events marking the secession of the Deep Southern states 150 years later has been interesting to follow.  Not too long ago South Carolina debated the merits of locating a monument to that state’s resolution to secede on public ground.  I have to assume that the question of how to mark the secession of the rest of the Deep South, especially Alabama, is seen by many across the racial line as nothing less than a powder keg.  It looks like Alabama has tried to minimize the potential negative fallout by placing the Civil War Sesquicentennial commemoration alongside two other anniversaries and under the name, “Becoming Alabama“.    Their own explanation for this decision is as follows:

The concept for Becoming Alabama began with a pragmatic assessment of the financial and logistical challenges posed by this rapid succession of anniversaries over the next several years. Given the budgetary restraints faced by nearly every historical and cultural organization in today’s economic climate, it made sense to seek efficiency in planning public programs, designing publicity, and developing educational resources.

No doubt, the economy has played havoc with the budgets of all of the state commissions but it is hard not to see other factors at work here.  I do not envy members of this committee, who will have to figure out how to commemorate the formation of the Confederate government and Jefferson Davis’s arrival in Montgomery.  Already, organizations are gearing up for all out celebrations that I am sure state sponsored events will hope to steer clear.  My only concern is that the emphasis on civil rights may hamper the ability of those who hope to offer a more complete picture of the Civil War in Alabama that appeals to both blacks and whites.  It is an interesting approach to some very tough questions.

20 thoughts on “Where Is Alabama’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee?

  1. Wallace Hettle

    I don’t know, but this could be a fruitful approach. Alabama has a marker at the state capitol noting the spot where Jefferson Davis was first inaugurated, and pointing out that King spoke on nearly the exact same spot at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march. I love the irony.

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    1. Andy Hall

      Alabama has a marker at the state capitol noting the spot where Jefferson Davis was first inaugurated, and pointing out that King spoke on nearly the exact same spot at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march.

      I have a good friend (white, Southern) who, as a teenager, visited the capitol at Montgomery shortly after King’s march. He noticed that the capitol steps were covered with plywood, and asked why. The white state trooper on duty there explained it was put in place in advance of the civil rights marchers, so they wouldn’t “desecrate” the site.

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  2. blowoutcomb

    “My only concern is that the emphasis on civil rights may hamper the ability of those who hope to offer a more complete picture of the Civil War in Alabama that appeals to both blacks and whites.”

    Having lived in the state most of my life and recently worked with the Columbus, GA 150th which covers the Chattahoochee Valley i.e. the counties in both states along the Chattahoochee river until this August, I feel well qualified to tell you that there is no “picture of the Civil War in Alabama that appeals to both…” See your post The Sesquicentennial is Alive and Well in Fredericksburg. That event would have never happened in Alabama. Hell, Rable is in Alabama ask him how many Civil War events he is doing in the state. Their is no attempt to paint a complete picture, none. If academics are trying they are margenialized as liberal yahoos who aren’t even southerners so what the hell do they know. This is an aspect of the hardline racial elephant that no one is willing to tackle. Most whites in Alabama would take the same line as Trace Atkins. In fact, they’ll take it further and say slavery had no impact on secession and for those that had slaves well they treated them right. In turn, African Americans are offput by this and have baggage of their own. They tend to have the view that all white confederates were racist/evil. So what is left is whites and blacks intractable in their views of the Civil War. Along with the racial aspect, some would have to come to terms that North Alabama raised a Cavalry Regiment – UNION.

    Getting beyond race, the reason Civil Rights emphasis is “winning” is complicated but related to the changing economic and demographics of the state. Alabama is effected in positive ways from BRAC – East Alabama because of Fort Benning, North Alabama because of missile programs at Red Stone and Hunstville area, and to a lesser extent Maxwell Airforce base in Montgomery because it will not close. Civil Rights emphasis allows for a progressiveness that the state needed to attract auto industry and now to profit from BRAC related industries. In short non-native southerns are coming to the state and the state cannot afford to be seen in a negative light.

    Also, just as important is that Civil Rights tourism in Alabama works – it generates revenue. Truth is people are not coming to visit Alabama’s Civil War history. They come to walk the Pettus Bridge @ Selma, to retract the Selma – Montgomery march, visit Bombingham, Dexter Ave Church and since they are here may visit other attractions.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment, John. Let’s hope some space to communicate can take place over the next few years. I am always optimistic. Your last point about the revenue generation relating to Civil Rights tourism is interesting and perhaps gets us further to understanding the commission’s decision to commemorate both.

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    2. EarthTone

      “In turn, African Americans are offput by this and have baggage of their own. They tend to have the view that all white confederates were racist/evil.”
      ***

      I have a theory that African Americans – especially black Southerners from the Baby Boomer and earlier generations – associate the Confederacy and its icons with Jim Crow and the segregation era.

      As such, the Civil War is not just something that happened 150 years. Rather, the War is merely the front end to an extended period of discrimination and even terror that ended in the 1970s – and is recent enough for people in their 50s to remember bitterly.

      On a CNN show a few months ago, a Southern African American was asked about his reaction to Civil War Commemorations and the like. He said something to the effect of, “White folks keep asking us why we can’t can’t get over the slavery and segregation. The problem is, they keep doing things to make us remember.”

      I don’t think Southern whites realize how strongly negative that Confederate symbols are to many (but not all) African Americans. This is in part because blacks and whites don’t discuss these issues in an open and frank manner. Perhaps some of them feel that such discussions will lead to rancor and not reconciliation, and are thus a wasted effort.

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      1. Andy Hall

        Yes, well put. As I’ve said in a related topic, the public display of the Confederate Battle Flag, the problem isn’t how it was used in the 1860s, but how it was used in the 1960s.

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  3. Ken Noe

    I can’t comment on Becoming Alabama’s plans, because I haven’t been an active participant, but it makes sense to me that the state embrace three distinct and overlapping anniversaries that are all important to lots of folks here. I know that the Alabama Historical Association has a special sesquicentennial issue of the Alabama Review coming out in April, and it provided impetus for a volume of essays on the war and Reconstruction that I’m editing. Our Auburn University library is planning several sesquicentennial events here in 2011, and I personally already have two in-state talks to local groups scheduled for next year. George Rable and the folks at the other university, the one that lost last night, are also planning various things. I think we’ll be fine.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Michaela and I had dinner with George last Saturday. I think you’ll be fine as well. Congratulations on the big win against Alabama.

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  4. Robert Moore

    “Along with the racial aspect, some would have to come to terms that North Alabama raised a Cavalry Regiment – UNION.”

    That whole story of the 1st Alabama Cavalry (US) is incredibly rich with that which is contrary to the popular (a generally superficial) story of Alabama in the war. It entails the story of differences within locality (men from the same area also served in the 5th Alabama Cavalry, CS), the fact that some of those who were affiliated with that regiment were slaveholders, and the fact that there were free blacks serving in the regiment. Absolutely fascinating stuff to mull over, but my guess is that the Alabama commemoration won’t try to tackle that one… but I’m always hopeful that it will.

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    1. Ken Noe

      Actually Robert, in my eleven years in Alabama, I’ve discovered that people already are absolutely fascinated with those guys. When it comes to Unionism, the trick is to get folks to look past them or “the free state of Winston” to other manifestations.

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  5. Gregg Clemmer

    I believe much of Alabama’s (and other state’s!) reluctance to embrace the approaching Sesquicentennial is the erroneous notion that these are to be “celebrations” instead of commemorations. A quick peek at several other state 150th sites shows repeated use of “celebration and celebrate” instead of “commemoration and commemorate” in their respective postings. Correcting such insensitive language would surely defuse many of the objections and hesitations of those planning on sitting out the next five years.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Gregg. Language matters a great deal, which is why Virginia has been consistent in describing its goal to commemorate rather than celebrate the Civil War. James Robertson has consistently said that there is very little to celebrate.

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  6. Brian Schoeneman

    It’s think hard to bash Alabama for merging the three issues together. While they may have a lot they want to ignore about the Civil War as you noted, there’s even more – and much more recent and thus more politically damaging – for them to want to sweep under the rug when it comes to Civil Rights. If they have a hard time commemorating the founding of the Confederate government or Davis’ arrival in Montgomery, it will be equally, if not more difficult, for them to commemorate Bloody Sunday or the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

    Given their history, this is probably the best approach for them. I’d give Alabama credit for confronting their past and talking about all of it, rather criticism for not paying greater attention to the War.

    Here’s another question – why don’t New York and some other northern states have Commissions? I know at least Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey have them. Why not more?

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Who is “bashing” Alabama for merging these three events? I was simply pointing this approach out to my readers. Do you make it a habit of picking fights?

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      1. Brian Schoeneman

        I wasn’t picking a fight, Kevin. You said “My only concern is that the emphasis on civil rights may hamper the ability of those who hope to offer a more complete picture of the Civil War in Alabama that appeals to both blacks and whites.” I took that as a criticism. Was it not?

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  7. John Kelton

    All ya’ll

    Sesquicentennial events are already happening, but there is NOT ONE WEB PORTAL that is up and running to inform everyone about the events, lectures, times and dates. Not even http://www.BecomingAlabama.org or .com C’mon Tourism Department, get it up and running.

    A note about the gold star where Jefferson Davis stood to take the oath in Montgomery. He actually stood on a platform that was built protruding from these steps. So, in fact, the gold star is about 6 feet off the mark.

    I am an exhibit planner and designer working on an exhibit about Streight’s raid through North Alabama in April, 1863. 2 companies of Alabama Union Cavalry joined him for the ride. I am finding that we have to be very careful with our language in reference to them. Tory/patriot/insurgent/political dissident/defender’s of the old flag???????

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  8. marooned

    This is not a one-off approach for Alabama.

    I spent several months in the Montgomery area. When I went there , I said that city and state meant just two things to me: 1861 and 1961. By that I meant the Civil War and Civil Rights. I did not mean that as a compliment.

    As a Southerner who has somewhat evolved in understandings about both events, I was still shocked to see how strong are the efforts to honestly face and embrace the realities of Alabama’s past and bring people together in the present.

    Montgomery recently opened a “Freedom Riders” museum. Could anyone have imagined, when so much violence exploded against the Freedom-Rider buses and individuals, there would be acceptance, even pride, at having moved beyond those terrible days?

    For many reasons, even noting the battles and ultimate removal, for very questionable reasons, of many of the Southeastern “civilized” tribes, has been slow to come for most of America. Alabama should be complimented for that effort.

    I talked to lots of people when I was around Montgomery. There was a sense of sincere inclusion.

    Like all of America, there are still lots of people with attitudes and behaviors that do not reflect the changes that have happened in this country. We also see them in places beyond Alabama.

    Alabama is not perfect and Alabamians are not perfect. No place is. None of us are. With great weights from the past, many of them are honestly working to improve their part of the South for everyone.

    Coming from “The Upper South” and living now in “The Other South” I am probably more sensitive to a lot of these issues than some others might be. And, overall, I think Alabamians are ahead of most of us.

    As such, they should remind all of us that we have a lot of work to do to make this a better society and country It is difficult.

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