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.
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.