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.
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.
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.