Civil rights and the Civil War

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Atlantans tend to take a separate, racial approach to celebrating and acknowledging historic events, a division that makes it challenging for both institutions and individual communities to bridge. Today, our columnists write about the proper way to honor major anniversaries next year for the Civil Rights Act and the Civil War’s fall of Atlanta.

Commenting is open.

Connecting Atlanta with honest reflection

By Sheffield Hale

As we recently recognized the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we are also approaching the anniversaries of two watershed events in American history. Next July marks 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which dealt a blow to the rule of Jim Crow. And September 2014 is the 150th anniversary of the fall of Atlanta during the Civil War.

The latter was the pivotal moment in the conflict. It came when the war seemed at a stalemate and Northern morale was low — so low, it seemed President Abraham Lincoln would lose the election and the war with it. Instead, the fall of Atlanta was the decisive turning point that ensured Lincoln’s re-election, secured the outcome of the war, and provided the death knell of slavery.

Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement and the Civil War inspires us to commemorate these anniversaries with respect and honesty.

The centennial of the Civil War, in the 1960s, was a missed opportunity to deal truthfully with its legacy. Next year must be different. Events surrounding the sesquicentennial of the conflict, however, have been largely met with apathy. An editorial in this paper recently stated, “Most African-Americans regard the Civil War with relative indifference.”

The Atlanta History Center is familiar with views from the African-American community, including those close to our organization, who believe we focus too much on the Civil War. Some of these arguments, as expressed in the editorial, state the blood shed to abolish slavery “hardly feels like something worth commemorating.” Others remember the underlying neo-Confederate interpretation that dominated popular discussions in the past.

Conversely, some whites regard the civil rights movement as irrelevant to their lives and believe the history center focuses too much on a politically correct version of African-American history. In doing so, they fail to recognize that social justice has a profound effect on our entire nation, and that history is not about making one group feel good, or another feel bad.

The Atlanta History Center does not seek to celebrate the Civil War or the civil rights movement. We aspire to reflect on the importance of the events themselves. The greater purpose is to address the larger challenge of helping our increasingly fractured communities perceive our collective history.

We must all realize we are connected by the same history: The civil rights movement cannot be viewed as only applicable to African-Americans, or the Civil War as only significant to whites. The outcomes of the Civil War are relevant to all, just as the promise of the civil rights movement is integral to all Americans.

The Atlanta History Center connects people, history and culture. The civil rights movement and Civil War are two crucial examples that clearly demonstrate why our history cannot be segregated. The Atlanta History Center will use these commemorations to emphasize our common past and allow us to appreciate our shared future.

Sheffield Hale, an Atlanta native, is president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center.

How the Civil War led to human rights

By Leah Ward Sears

Letters, speeches and articles written by those who established and supported the Confederacy now make it difficult, if not impossible, to deny that slavery was the central issue for which the South waged war against the North during the Civil War.

Unfortunately, today, many Southern white Americans still resist this fact, citing instead states’ rights, taxes or the election of Abraham Lincoln as president as the catalyst for war. Some delude themselves by celebrating or mourning the Civil War’s benchmarks — like the fall of Atlanta in 1864 — by wearing Confederate uniforms and reenacting battles, disregarding the fact that their ancestors were actually fighting to enslave other human beings.

Many African-Americans, including me, are offended by these “celebrations,” especially when revelers speak fondly of the “Southern way of life that was lost” because, after all, that way of life was founded on white supremacy supported by black slave labor.

In spite of the many who still “look the other way” to separate the Civil War from the issue of slavery, there seems little reason for African-Americans to refuse to commemorate, in meaningful ways, the end of the Civil War — particularly since the most obvious result of the end of that crisis was the emancipation of nearly 4 million African slaves, along with three amendments to the Constitution that abolished slavery and promised the freed people full and equal citizenship.

Yes, notwithstanding the promises made by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, African-Americans did not actually get most of their civil rights for another hundred years, and only as a result of the civil rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which legally ended segregation and disparate treatment.

But there wouldn’t have been a civil rights movement if the Civil War had turned out differently. So, in reality, these two events are interconnected. Not only because they transformed the consciousness of American society by ending overt racism, but because they were catalysts that brought a new awareness to our country. Entire campaigns for change around the world grew out of the courageous effort of the civil rights movement to achieve human rights and liberty for all people.

So the way I see it, the fall of Atlanta was the beginning of a long period of painful labor that ultimately resulted in the rebirth of our nation in the 1960s during the civil rights movement. This is a past that should not be forgotten, much less scorned, by anyone.

Nor should it be celebrated by overlooking the horrors. Rather, next year, we should all mark the two anniversaries as historic moments that strengthened human rights, making it possible for African-Americans like me to embrace our nation free of fear and frustration.

In so doing, perhaps white Americans can honestly embrace the past, leaving behind decades of guilt and condemnation, knowing that this nation’s tortured history of race relations and conflict ultimately welded together a nation of greater tolerance and acceptance that today all of us can enjoy.

Leah Ward Sears, an Atlanta attorney, is former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.

8 comments Add your comment


October 16th, 2013
10:13 am

Mr. Rose, you are correct. Our manual of style, the AP style, does not capitalize “civil rights movement,” so copy editors at the paper changed it.

Georgia Farmer

October 12th, 2013
10:37 am

History is written by the victors.
If the war was only about slaves why did it not become a issue until the North was loosing and needed Britain to not help the south?


October 12th, 2013
8:24 am

“history is not about making one group feel good, or another feel bad”

For those who see a sheet and hood behind every tree, that is exactly what history is about.

Michael Rose, Atlanta History Center

October 12th, 2013
7:36 am

I wanted to respond to Mr. Minnis’ observation that the term, “Civil Rights Movement,” was not capitalized by either Mr. Hale of the Atlanta History Center or Ms. Sears. I guarantee Mr. Minnis that the Atlanta History Center always capitalizes Civil Rights Movement in all of its publications, award-winning exhibitions, student/teacher guides, and public program and festival material. I conclude the Atlanta Journal-Constitution uses a different manual of style and edited Mr. Hale’s term.

Leroy Minnis

October 11th, 2013
7:21 pm

Both Leah Sears and Sheffield Hale gave wonderful perspectives of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. My only fault with both articles in the commentary for 10-11-2013: they were “mis-educated” to the fact of not capitalizing the “Civil Rights Movement” like they capitalized the “Civil War.” But maybe historians of the Civil Rights Movement like Herb Boyd and Todd Burroughs were wrong. My conclusion, whether then or now, black or white, male or female, racism sells and will continue to sell and be a booming business. Explore North Fulton County and South Fulton County and it becomes proof.


October 11th, 2013
4:25 pm

“…disregarding the fact that their ancestors were actually fighting to enslave other human beings.”

This is (very transparent) code for ‘your ancestors were slaveowners so you should feel guilty too’. The reality is that we are now about five generations removed from the Civil War and no one alive in 2013 had anything to do with 19th century American slavery. So give it a rest Ms. Sears.


October 11th, 2013
1:16 pm

“Yes or no?: We should be more honest with each other about the Civil War. Discuss” tweeted by AJC. Of course you should always be honest. But in history, the ‘honest’ past is up to one’s own perspective. There are compelling arguments and evidence that slavery was ‘a’ central issue, not necessarily ‘the’ central issue of the Civil War. Others think as Justice Sears does. Again, its all about perspective. But yes, always be honest.

Paul Rice

October 11th, 2013
7:37 am

Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote a compelling article on human rights. My objection is her inference that it is white Americans who have not honestly embraced the past. The people that I see who have not honestly embraced the past, and especially the past 50 years, are those whose relevance depends upon seeing racism behind every tree, under every rock, in every gesture, every “code word”, and every offhand remark.