Ken Noe on the Civil War Centennial & Sesquicentennial

This past January historian Ken Noe shared his thoughts about the Civil War centennial and the current state of the sesquicentennial at the Alabama State Archives in Montgomery, Alabama. Ken’s edited collection of essays on Alabama’s Civil War was recently published by the University of Alabama Press.

At one point in the talk Ken suggests that an oral history project focused on Americans who lived through the centennial is needed. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a great idea for a project.

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5 comments… add one
  • Richard Paul Wilson Jr. Jul 20, 2015 @ 17:29

    I was six, was I racist? I don’t know. I define that period as my period of “racism of ignorance”. I DID use the word “nigger” back then, as a six year old, I had been told that it was the proper word for black people (and I had it on the authority of a nine year old.

    I also read Martin Luther Kings sermon to our maid when my parents weren’t home, and answered he question of whether it was true honestly when she asked (was it true that to call a man lesser due to skin color was to call God a liar since all men were created equal”. I also asked whether “HE” was a good man or a bad man when at church we had a class on Martin Luthur”. It took the Sunday School teacher 15 minutes to understand that I did t know the difference between Martin Luthur, and Martin Luthur King. I remember standing outside of George Wallace’s office waiting to go home. I was THURSTY! I tried the “white” water fountain, it was broke. I tried the “colored” fountain and it worked, I didn’t drink. I dejectedly went back to the “white” fountain and tried it one more time. Still broke. A “trustee” showed himself. He had been watching me from around the corner. He told me to “go ahead boy, and get yo self a drink”. “I can’t”, I said. He repeated, ” go ahead boy, they ain’t no one looking and I won’t tell no one”. “I can’t” I said again. Why can’t you boy? Why can’t you get that drink”, he said! “I can’t cause if I drink that water, I’ll turn black”, I said (another bit of wisdom I had received from the big nine year olds). He slapped his knee laughing and said “Boy don’t you know if that was true, I’d be drinking out of the other fountain! See, racism of ignorance!
    We were proud of our Confederate past. Most didn’t even understand racism. I sure as hell didn’t. We had a maid (helped my mom keep our 800 sq ft, un-air conditioned house clean. Her name was “Mary Lee”, I loved her, and she loved me.
    We PRAYED at the Centinial in 1961. We prayed for the lost Heros of a lost cause. Was there racism of ignorance ? How would I have known, did hate black peoples? Absolutely not. Segregation was wrong NOT because of the separation (hell, we’re still segregated by black AND white choice). The evil was in the lie of “equal”. Mary Lee took me to her kids s hook so I could be a witness.
    There is so much more to say, but let me end with this. I’m DAMNED tired of people raising hatred about a time they don’t understand. Most who do never had a childhood with love or God.
    Maybe later.

  • Laura McCarty Apr 4, 2014 @ 10:53

    Interesting talk. Thanks for sharing it, Kevin.

    After Robert Cook’s wonderful book, there have been a number of articles (including one that I wrote for the New Georgia Encyclopedia) which have tried to flesh out the story of the Centennial observances in Southern states. I’ve seen them on AL, TN, SC, etc. All of us draw on Cook for big picture and flesh out the more local details.

    In the realm of other books, David Blight has written about the Centennial, of course, in American Oracle.

    I also noticed this week that both of the recent books about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (by Todd Purdum and Clay Risen) include the Centennial observances of the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s birthday as moments to help set the context for their arguments.

    So long live the world of Civil War Centennial studies! Maybe the next generation of them will be the Civil War Centennial in the North?

  • Edwin Thompson Apr 4, 2014 @ 6:01

    Hi Kevin – I usually don’t comment, but this is a good subject.

    Ken has a good idea, but an oral history project alone is not a good idea. It would be a disservice to the historical record. What was done in the 1960’s may not be recalled today – it may morph into another story. In the 1970’s, I lived in Alabama and I remember conversations about the civil war centennial celebration that occurred in Montgomery. People were very proud of that celebration. If a question was asked as to why the celebration occurred, it either created hostility or put an end to the conversation.

    For the project to have value, a history of the times is required to capture the thinking of the average 1960 white southerner. These were the days of the White Citizens Council, the KKK, John Patterson and George Wallace (“I’ll never be outniggered again”). That was the culture and times and they were celebrating a nation created to enslave others. In 2014, in an interconnected digital world, it will be a challenge for many white southerners to remember what it was all about. It is a good subject to document, especially in comparison to the sesquicentennial.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2014 @ 6:15

      Robert Cook has written an excellent scholarly study on the history of the Civil War Centennial. Oral histories are all about capturing the unique perspectives of individuals. How folks experienced and remembered the Centennial is a perfect subject for study. I fail to see the problem.

    • Richard Paul Wilson Jr. Jul 20, 2015 @ 17:03

      I was there and YOU have no right to prejudge what I have to say about what I experienced as a six year old boy.

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