America is getting ready to mark the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. There will be four years of programs and events subject to budgets and the imagination and agenda of the planners. Let’s hope things come off better than they did during the Civil War centennial 1961-1965.
The centennial was marred by a battle over racial memory; segregationists and their opponents used the observance to their own purposes, according to one scholar, Bruce Cook, who wrote a book about it. He argued that many Southern whites “embraced the commemoration as a weapon in their fight to save racial segregation, while African Americans and liberal whites tried to transform it into a celebration of black emancipation.” Not surprisingly, the “official” observance ended with little accomplished apart from a few well-written books about the Civil War.
So what can we look forward to in 2011-2015? One of our key partners, the Georgia Humanities Council, along with the Center for the Book and some other organizations in Georgia are going to try to see that the observance in this state is marked by something more meaningful than battle re-enactments and statue-building. Within our programming, we want to offer opportunities for diverse voices and opinions about this most divisive event in our nation’s history. We’d like to do more than simply comment on the obvious or rehash the evident.
We began in a quite “unofficial” way recently when we hosted historian Stephanie McCurry discussing her new book, Confederate Reckoning, which lays out a grim picture of a secessionist, proslavery, anti-democratic South brought to its political knees by the people it sought to disenfranchise: women and slaves. It is a viewpoint that has not often been aired, and it upset some of the people in our audience that evening. That’s alright, though we would have preferred they had stayed to engage our guest in an enlarged discussion about the subject.
We’re counting on many more such programs over the next several years; a topic as large-scaled and still-meaningful as the war ought to provoke serious and challenging discussions. Yes, there’s always room for remembering the past, but we must keep in mind that there are many ways of remembering it. Stay tuned for more about this in coming months.