Just finished reading Jill Ogline Titus’s thoughtful essay on the Civil War sesquicentennial and its renewed focus on the themes of slavery and emancipation in the most recent issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. Jill surveys how various institutions have interpreted these controversial themes through their exhibits, symposia, and websites.
What she finds is encouraging, but Jill does acknowledge what I agree is a serious shortcoming in the overall theme of Civil War to civil rights.
Though an enormous improvement over the guiding frameworks of the Civil War Centennial, the Civil War to civil rights theme offers a somewhat Whiggish interpretation of history, a clear ascent from point A to point B, almost predetermined to succeed and without setbacks and reversals. For all its merit, it obscures both the contingency of history and the fragility of freedom secured by the war. For many enslaved Americans, the transition from slavery to freedom was experienced piecemeal, full of contingencies and reversals. Even after the passage of the Reconstruction amendments, the meaning of freedom on the ground–and the extent to which it would change the social relationships and labor practices that circumscribed their lives–was still hotly contested. When pursued in isolation from other themes, the Civil War to civil rights trajectory can also obscure other interpretive angles, such as the tension between states’ rights and federalism and the conflicting loyalties engendered by regional and national identity. These concepts also have rich contemporary resonance, for both are deeply intertwined with American ideas about the operation of democracy and the role of the federal government as a guarantor of equality….
There are other–less optimistic–ways to draw a trajectory from the Civil War to civil rights movement, such as a sustained focus on a century of backlash to efforts to enlarge the definition of freedom, from the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to the White Citizens’ Councils to union busting and disparities in the criminal justice system to real estate strategies such as red-lining and blockbusting. Another effective approach might be to examine the deep historical roots of disproportionate political power. Just as the proportional formula for representation in Congress allowed the white South to dominate national politics in the decades leading up to the Civil War, so did the region’s white primaries and one-party rule provide conservative southern Democrats the congressional seniority needed to dominate key committees throughout the early to mid-twentieth-century. From these positions, they held the power necessary to effectively stymie many of the legislative goals of the civil rights movement. (pp. 343-44)
It is a celebratory narrative that obscures the long history of race relations more than it reveals. There is something comforting in being able to walk away knowing that you took part in rectifying what David Blight has identified as the nation’s collective amnesia regarding the place of slavery and emancipation in Civil War memory. Another problem is that public historians are deeply invested in seeing the outcome of the Civil War as leading inevitably to the Reconstruction amendments and the question of justice for those African Americans who bore arms for the Union. This has been explored thoroughly by Carole Emberton.
In the end the particular shape that this current theme of Civil War to civil rights has taken has much in common with the Lost Cause. Both narratives oversimplify and distort in ways that allow Americans to celebrate a collective belief in the inevitable progress of history.