Monday, September 2, 2013

The Civil War and Civil Rights

by Nancy McCammon-Hansen

In the July 19, 2013 edition of The Week magazine, an article appeared entitled “Glorifying the Civil War”. The work originally appeared in The Atlantic Magazine.

But the “glory” in the title is a misnomer as historians are increasingly looking at the negative impact the Civil War had on our nation. Historian David Goldfield goes so far as to say it was “America’s greatest failure”. Goldfield blames polarization around the issue of slavery as the downfall of our nation. The guilty parties in his eyes are politicians, extremists and evangelical Christians who created an atmosphere where compromise and reasoned debate became an impossibility.

“Unlike the revisionists of old,” states the article, “Goldfield sees slavery as the bedrock of the Southern cause and abolition as the war’s great achievement. But he argues that white supremacy was so entrenched, North and South, that war and Reconstruction could never deliver true racial justice to freed slaves, who soon became subject to economic peonage, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and rampant lynching.

“Nor did the war knit the nation back together. Instead, the South became a stagnant backwater, a resentful region that lagged and resisted the nation’s progress. It would take a century and the civil rights struggle for blacks to achieve legal equality, and for the South to emerge from poverty and isolation. ‘Emancipation and reunion, the two great results of this war, were badly compromised,’ Goldfield says. Given these equivocal gains, and the immense toll in blood and treasure, he asks: ‘Was the war worth it? No.’”.

Not all historians agree with Goldfield but views of the war are starting to change. Gary Gallagher says we have over-emphasized slavery and liberation in our views on Civil War era thinking. “There’s an Appomattox syndrome—we look at Northern victory and emancipation and read the evidence backward.”. In Gallagher’s view, most Northerners were fighting for the Union, not the end of slavery, and the Emancipation Proclamation was a measure of desperation designed to undermine the South.

The South came closer to winning the war, far closer than we are taught in most history classes, and “for the South, a tie was as good as a win”. The South “needed to inflict enough pain to convince a divided Northern public that defeating the South wasn’t worth the cost.”

Civil War casualties are the worst this nation has ever suffered. Soldiers didn’t wear dog tags, burial sites were sometimes unknown and casualty records sketchy or lost. The toll of 618,000, which has been the casualty figure for so long, is now being upped to 750,000. Civil War scholars agree with this figure determined by J. David Hacker, a demographic historian. A comparable war today would cost 7.5 million lives.

This figure also does not take into account soldiers who were disabled by amputation, ongoing disease, PTSD and other afflictions. Veterans did not speak of this and historians did not investigate. But Drew Gilpin Faust published in 2008 a work entitled The Republic of Suffering, citing the female view of the war.

“‘Civil War history has traditionally had a masculine view. It’s all about generals and statesmen and glory.’ From reading the letters of women during the war, though, she sensed the depth of Americans’ fear, grief, and despair. Writing her book amid ‘the daily drumbeat of loss’ in coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, Faust’s focus on the horrors of this earlier war was reinforced.

“‘When we go to war, we ought to understand the costs,’ she says. ‘Human beings have an extraordinary capacity to forget that. Americans went into the Civil War imaging glorious battle, not gruesome disease and dismemberment.’”

Lincoln and others advocated for an approach to slavery that had been used in the British West Indies, whereby there would be a gradual and compensated emancipation of slaves. Brazil and Cuba would later use this approach.

“Economists have calculated that the cost of the Civil War, estimated at over $10 billion in 1860 dollars, would have been more than enough to buy the freedom of every slave, purchase them land, and even pay reparations. But Lincoln’s proposals for compensated emancipation fell on deaf ears.

“Nor is there much credible evidence that the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ would have peacefully waned on its own. Slave-grown cotton was booming in 1860, and slaves in non-cotton states like Virginia were being sold to Deep South planters at record prices, or put to work on railroads and in factories.

“Most historians believe that without the Civil War, slavery would have endured for decades, possibly generations. Though emancipation was a by-product of the war, not its aim, and white Americans clearly failed during Reconstruction to protect and guarantee the rights of freed slaves, the post-war amendments enshrined the promise of full citizenship and equality in the Constitution for later generations to fulfill.”

Southerners were able to capitalize on a “war weary” North where the attitude about black equality was “ambivalent about, if not hostile to, black equality”.

At Gettysburg in November 1863, Lincoln delivered his famous address. In it he urged “us the living” to dedicate ourselves to finishing the work of the Civil War. That’s where the Civil Rights Movement comes into play.
The lecturn King used when speaking in Fort Wayne.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the nation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, delivering his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. This event was remembered across our nation and locally at the University of St. Francis auditorium downtown.

Audience members viewed the speech in its entirety and then a panel composed of Hanna Stith, Edward Smith and Larry Lee answered questions from Andrew Prall, Ph.D., Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Saint Francis.

Prall, Lee, Stith and Smith speak about the Civil Rights era in Fort Wayne.

Mrs. Stith is well-known around Fort Wayne for her role in the founding of the African/African-American Historical Society and for being one of the first black teachers in Fort Wayne. You can learn more about her at

Smith founded Frost Illustrated and was relatively new to Fort Wayne in 1963. Learn more about him at

Larry Lee was 19 in 1963 and was unable to attend the March on Washington because he needed his job and his construction foreman indicated time away would result in a job loss. He is now president of Leepoxy Plastics and has been a civil and human rights activist, participating in marches and demonstrations, including Rallies for Justice in Meridian and Philadelphia, MS. He also initiated the grass-roots movement to rename Clinton Street “Martin Luther King Boulevard” and has served the Fort Wayne Urban League, United Hispanic Americans and Martin Luther King Club boards.

In King’s speech, the Civil Rights leader said he “refused to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt” and that “now is the time to make justice a reality”. He warned against violence and said blacks must “meet physical violence with soul force”.

“We must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.”

Prall asked the panel where they were on August 28, 1963.

Smith did not attend the march but remembers the Fort Wayne movement to make buses available for local residents to attend. Stith was the mother of a 7-year old who watched on television with her. Stith reminisced about she and her brothers selling papers and learning “to read early”.

“So many ugly things were happening. I was a very good friend of Dr. Bernard Stuart, president of the NAACP in Fort Wayne.” Stuart went to Washington with others from our city. “It was about time somebody do something,” said Stith.

Lee added that “everything the march intended to do came to pass” but we knew “anything could happen” since whites were more concerned about the potential for violence. But Smith countered that “no one was thinking of violence” in the black community.

A number of white Hollywood stars supported the March on Washington including Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Shelley Winters, James Garner, Tony Bennett and Steve McQueen.

Stith, in talking about Fort Wayne in 1963, said, “This was a very prejudiced community but there were a lot of good people here too.” She particularly singled out the Unitarian House, Margaret Ann Keegan, Ian Rolland, Larry Hayes, the Urban League and the NAACP.

“We had good white involvement.”

Lee seconded Rolland’s involvement and Hayes, who was editor of the Journal Gazette, for his “goodwill for the march”. Leonard Goldstine was also among those recognized for his work.

But Stith added that there was a “sheer absence of white churches” in response to segregation and civil rights issues in Fort Wayne and wished that there had been “more stalwart support”. However, in her view, the March on Washington “helped the community. We’ve seen some improvements in this community. But things have not come easy for us.”

Lee, who is white, spoke emphatically about the “venomous bias and hatred that was tolerated” in the area and that signs in “Mom and Pop” stores stating “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” were blatant anti-black statements.

Smith explained that clergy, doctors, lawyers and other black professionals were out in front of the local civil rights movement because anyone working in a factory job or had other employment that was affiliated with a union was fearful of losing his job.

“The unions had to support you.”

Many of the speakers who followed the panel, and panel members themselves, voiced the idea that respect for others and a focus on character rather than skin color are necessary for our nation even today.

And in summing up King’s address and the March on Washington, Stith said, “They had no idea it would be the success it was. This speech runs circles around the Gettysburg Address.”

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