Can the NAACP Get Right With the Civil War Sesquicentennial?

NAACP Protest in Charleston, SC, December 2010

In a recent post, Ta-Nehisis Coates is critical of the NAACP for its continued boycott of South Carolina as well as its struggle to remove the Confederate flag from state house grounds.  I couldn’t agree more with Coates:

There is something that really strikes me as wrong about urging people to not visit South Carolina on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. I was listening to the radio a few days ago, and the mayor of Charleston was discussing the significance of the city’s slave ports in American history. I haven’t seen this on paper, but he claimed something like 20 percent of all African-American have an ancestor that came through Charleston. Whether that’s true, or not, you’re talking about a state with a unique place in black history, in particular, and American history at large…. At some point we have to stop telling people what they can’t believe in, and start telling them what they can. At some point we have push a positive view of history, not in the sense of white-washing, but in the sense of something beyond debunking. I don’t know that you can banish the Confederate flag from the South. I don’t know that you can make Tennessee come to terms with Nathan Bedford Forrest. But surely you can shine a light on Ida B Wells, Prince Rivers, Cassius Clay and Elizabeth Van Lew.

About a year ago I wrote the following about the NAACP and the Confederate flag:

My objection boils down to the belief that this protest will only work to further divide the parties involved. We are at a point now where neither side is really interested in understanding one another’s perspective and this leads to public statements and accusations that tend to generalize about the motivations of various institutions and organizations. The upshot is little or no opportunity to find common ground or even the space to communicate with one another in an honest and open manner.

That said, my biggest complaint with the NAACP is that they are misappropriating their resources. There simply is no way to win this fight. I would much rather see the NAACP focus on reconnecting African Americans with the Civil War and its emancipationist legacy. The Civil War Sesquicentennial is right around the corner, yet you wouldn’t know it if you perused the NAACP’s website. Instead of spending valuable hours and funds on the display of the Confederate flag I advocate pushing new symbols that demonstrate both the richness of black history as well as the centrality of the Civil War to the greatest story of freedom that this nation can tell.

Although I have no way of measuring, it seems to me that most African Americans care little about the Civil War. This is not entirely the fault of black Americans since for much of the twentieth century little in the way of black history was taught in public schools and when it was taught it tended to be slanted towards an interpretation written by white Americans with the intention of being consumed by white Americans. In recent years, however, museums, historical societies, and especially the National Park Service have taken steps specifically geared to attracting black Americans and yet little has changed. The NAACP should be engaged in reclaiming the Civil War as the central moment in the history of black America. Such a move would go much further in challenging defenders of the Confederate flag who claim that it is simply a symbol of the common soldier without any connection to how that symbol functioned in an army whose purpose was to defend a slave society.

The NAACP could organize tours of Civil War battlefields, especially at places where USCTs took part and helped shape the course of the war, and their website could easily include more information that would be useful to teachers and general readers alike. Wouldn’t this be a more meaningful use of one’s time and resources rather than removing one Confederate flag?

A year ago it was still unclear to me as to how the official start of the Civil War Sesquicentennial would shape up, but the past few months provided plenty of reasons to be optimistic.  We’ve seen a major conference here in Virginia on race and slavery and apart from the national coverage of the Secession Gala it is clear that many South Carolinians are ready to turn the page on a naive Lost Cause view of the Civil War.  The coverage of the 150th anniversary of the state’s decision to secede suggests that the nation may, in fact, be ready to grapple with the role that slavery played in the Civil War.  Unfortunately, the NAACP shows little indication that they are willing to move beyond touting a narrative of victimization as a part of a broader politics of division.

The NAACP can work its way through the next few years by continuing to protest events sponsored by various heritage groups in exchange for national media coverage or they can take part in promoting a history of the Civil War that situates African Americans at the center of this crucial moment in American history.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

16 comments… add one
  • Asa Gordon Jun 18, 2015 @ 6:10

    “A Sesquicentennial Civil War_Beyond Protest & Boycott to Enlightenment”
    Asa Gordon – Sec.Gen.S&DUSCT

    African-American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation
    Sesquicentennial Civil War Commemorative Events 2010-2015
    The following memorial dates have been designated by the African-American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation’s charter organization the Sons & Daughters United States Colored Troops to facilitate national commemorative events to hi-light and honor the role of the United States Colored Troops within the context of national Sesquicentennial Civil War Commemorative Events for 2010-2015 . Memorial events are centered on USCT state markers nationwide.

    Sunday, June 2th, 2013
    Swing Low Sweet Harriet
    [ Friday, May 31st ] _ [Saturday, June 1st ]_ [Sunday, June 2nd, 2013]
    Sesquicentennial Commemoration of
    Harriet Tubman’s
    Abolitionist Raid On The Combahee River_June 2, 1863
    2pm-Harriet Tubman Bridge _ 5pm-Tabernacle Baptist, Graven St
    Mitcheville Preservation Project :

    Check back for Updates to this site.

  • Billy Bearden Jan 18, 2011 @ 10:04

    I believe we have just witnessed the true NAACP agenda yesterday. The covering of the Statue of George Washington on the SC Statehouse grounds so the blacks “wouldn’t be offended” and a new demand for a boycott – of Charlotte NC. None of this is advancing anybody’s Civil Rights, nor is it designed for advancement of anything but racism.

  • George Geder Jan 5, 2011 @ 17:26


    Speaking of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, there’s an awesome book about them.

    “Nineteenth Century Freedom Fighters, The 1st South Carolina Volunteers
    by Bennie J. McRae Jr. (Author), Curtis M. Miller (Author), Cheryl Trowbridge-Miller (Author)
    Publisher: Arcadia Publishing (April 23, 2007)
    ISBN-10: 0738524964”

    You can read my brief review at
    I plan to mention this book to the SC NAACP.

    Peace & Blessings
    “Guided by the Ancestors”

  • Ole Roy Jan 5, 2011 @ 13:13

    The NAACP is wasting time and energy in SC. Your correct Kevin their time would be better served by offering their view of history.

    • George Geder Jan 5, 2011 @ 18:09

      I don’t think the SC NAACP is waisting time and energy as you say. There’s value in bringing issues to the masses. In a perfect world, dialog, understanding, and the coming together of citizens and culture may result. In a perfect world.

      Time would not be better served if the SC NAACP offered ‘their’ view of history. The goal should be for a concensus for all the people of the United States TO VIEW THE SAME HISTORY; especially when it comes to the American Civil War.

      I hope you are not saying that the SC NAACP should just go away.

      Peace & Blessings
      “Guided by the Ancestors”

  • London John Jan 5, 2011 @ 1:03

    “not all residents of SC were Confederates or even had loyalties to the Confederacy.” This is no doubt true, but I believe SC was the only Confederate state not to contribute at least one regiment of White volunteers to the Union army?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 5, 2011 @ 2:32

      What about those slaves who made up the all black, 1st South Carolina?

  • EarthTone Dec 31, 2010 @ 13:22

    I think it’s an error to say that the NAACP is doing these protests “in exchange for national media coverage.” I think, in the case of the SC ball, that they have genuine, heart-felt anger at the event and what they feel it represents. One of the things that the NAACP does is protest, it’s ONE of their tools; it’s no surprise that they are not employing that tool. In fact, it’d be a surprise if they didn’t use that tool in this case.

    Having said that, I would agree with Coates that, the NAACP should work to become part of the solution, instead of merely expressing outrage at the problem. As someone who’s been a member of the organization I can say that it probably has too many fish to fry to be heavily involved in the Sesquicentennial. What it can do, though, is identify partners that it can ally with, and use its brand to draw attention to these partnership efforts. The NAACP could, for example, co-sponsor events at libraries or schools to highlight and commemorate aspects of the War era that might not be getting adequate attention.

    We’ll see if that happens over time.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 31, 2010 @ 13:28

      The problem in the case of the Ball is that it ultimately didn’t amount to much. Yes, it received a great deal of attention, but they never offered a coherent response to the nature of the event. Like I said, I have no problem with protesting; what concerns me is its effectiveness. The continued call for African Americans to boycott South Carolina makes very little sense to me.

  • Katherine Gotthardt Dec 31, 2010 @ 11:03

    I am a member of the NAACP. : )

  • George Geder Dec 31, 2010 @ 9:43

    Hi Kevin,

    Good points; I hear you. I should have included that I think the SC NAACP is wrong in suggesting the boycott of SC tourism. That was not thought out well. I have ancestry in SC and plan to visit and research there. I’m an officer in the Santa Fe branch NAACP [disclaimer!] and I plan to propose we organize events or activities commemorating New Mexico’s involvement in the Civil war.

    Katherine, I hear you as well. For SC to be that teaching tool, some people (not just the NAACP and black folks) need to step up and make that happen.

    All residents of SC were not confederates, however, all residents of SC were there. I would like to hear about those residents who stood up in protest to the confederates.

    I’m reminded of the expression ‘you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution’. To that end, one either tried to perpetuate slavery or stop slavery. Today, we need not be enemies – but we should acknowledge on which side of the fence our ancestors stood.

    Peace & Blessings
    “Guided by the Ancestors”

    • Kevin Levin Dec 31, 2010 @ 10:37

      Thanks for reading, George, and Happy New Year.

  • Katherine Gotthardt Dec 31, 2010 @ 5:51

    “I advocate pushing new symbols that demonstrate both the richness of black history as well as the centrality of the Civil War to the greatest story of freedom that this nation can tell.”

    I completely agree. If anything, SC can become the perfect teaching tool for and celebration of black history. There is no reason why the horrors of slavery cannot be part of those teaching tools. I would also advocate exploring ways of continuing the healing process, however. We need not be enemies.

    Furthermore, it should be remembered that not all residents of SC were Confederates or even had loyalties to the Confederacy. Should everyone be blamed for the perpetuation of slavery?

  • George Geder Dec 30, 2010 @ 20:25

    I can’t fault the South Carolina regional branch(es) of the NAACP for protesting the ‘secession ball’. All branches of the NAACP must shine a light on the indignities in their respective communities.

    As for the national NAACP, I agree that an emphasis must be made on acknowledging the role African Ancestored people played in the Civil War. What better civil rights organization is there to accomplish this? People, especially our youth, need to know about our ancestors’ participation in this American event. It was this moment in history that cemented the concept of African Ancestored people calling themselves Americans. You can’t have African- Americans without South Carolina seceding and the eventual Civil War. You can’t have African- Americans without the United States Colored Troops. That’s what the national NAACP should emphasize throughout the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

    We should not let our guard down for one moment. We need to point out, protest, and have a dialog about all indignities including the secession gala and displaying a derisive flag on public buildings.

    Peace & Blessings
    “Guided by the Ancestors”

    • Kevin Levin Dec 31, 2010 @ 4:21


      Let me be clear that I have no problem with protesting. My concern has do with the decisions being made by the NAACP as to how to most effectively protest. I agree with Coates that they should be encouraging African Americans to visit South Carolina and that they should be involved in organizing events that highlight the very history that they believe is being suppressed or ignored. Others are already engaged in just this project.

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