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Healing a 150-year old Wound: The Legacy of the American Civil War

2011 December 15
by sfcg
CPRF on Race in America

The Panelists from left: Edward Ayers, David Blight, Joseph Montville, Frank Smith, Donald Shriver, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

Monday’s Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum was a unique one. Instead of focusing, as it usually does, on conflicts far, it highlighted a much closer conflict: the legacy of the Civil War on American life. Bound up in this conflict, even over a century later are lasting issues of identity, structural inequalities and deep political and cultural divisions.  2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil war and is, perhaps ironically, the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil Rights era. The Speakers were impressive and varied in their backgrounds. Full bios can be found here.


Edward L. Ayers
President, University of Richmond

David W. Blight
Class of 1954 Professor of American History and Director, Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance & Abolition, Yale University

Frank Smith, Ph.D.
Director, African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, Washington, D.C.

Donald W. Shriver
President-Emeritus, Union Theological Seminary, New York

Special Guest Speaker:
Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton

United States Representative for the District of Columbia

Joseph Montville
Director, Program on Healing Historical Memory, School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

As Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes-Norton, noted, a civil war is unique in that the victor and loser must go back to living with each other. There is no other country to return to, no easy way to get distance and perspective from the conflict. Indeed, the panel’s general consensus was that America has never really healed from the civil war.  

There are some who say the civil war was inevitable, David Blight intoned. And with the revenue gained by slavery, that is hard to argue with. At the time of the Civil War, Edward Ayers noted, Virginia alone was making over $100 million a year in today’s numbers directly and indirectly from the sale and labor of slaves. Frank Smith added that nationwide the fruits of slavery made up an estimated 70% of the US economy. With this kind of money and power tied up in human bondage it’s difficult to imagine slavery coming to an end through any means but force, a point that Smith argued.

However, as Blight says, “theories of inevitability are never satisfying.” And while the war itself might have been inevitable, the aftermath, the way reconciliation was attempted or not attempted, was not. And as Blight said, “some reconciliations come at a terrible cost.”

The Reconstruction period directly following the war, saw many gains for black Americans. Legislation banning racial discrimination was passed and blacks were even elected to public office in multiple Southern states.  Black men were given the right to vote and voted for the first time in 1867, nearly a century before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. What followed is perhaps one of the saddest points in American history and a lesson in failed conflict resolution. With the end of Reconstruction and the removal of federal troops from Southern states in 1877—usually the only buffer for blacks from racial violence—the period of history called “The nadir of American race relations,” began.

Newly freed black were abandoned to terrorism, violence and intimidation from disorganized and organized vigilante groups (like the Ku Klux Klan) and policies of segregation and voter restriction rolled back the rights of black people nearly as quickly as they’d come. Racism became more deeply entrenched in American culture and more institutionalized in American society than perhaps any other time. This period shows the fallacy of seeing history as inevitable. The nadir of race relations came about because of the actions and inaction of people in both the North and the South, and followed a period of hope and positive change.

When what’s past is prologue, “knowing what actually happened matters,” Edward Ayers argues. He spoke of his work in his home state of Virginia to spread accurate information about the legacy of the Civil War and found shockingly low levels of knowledge about the period. This ignorance is widespread, a fact the other panelists were quick to agree. A recent poll found that more than 50% of Americans think the Civil War was fought over states rights, and even more troubling is the fact that younger people were more likely to hold this view. This, despite the fact that the Southern rationale for secession is well documented in their own words, and holds slavery as central to their desire to leave the union.

But this reimagining of history, what Blight calls the politics of memory, is how Americans have dealt with this particularly ugly time in their past. “We think in myth,” Blight said. “Myths are the stories we tell ourselves we’re living.” So for the South “The Great Alibi” has emerged; where the Civil War is recast as a war fought for the sovereignty of state’s rights. That the North was complicit in the negative legacy of the war is often forgotten north of the Mason-Dixon Line. This is what Blight calls “The Treasury of Virtue,” where the North is portrayed solely as “the good guy” with little to no attention paid to its own racism and abandonment of blacks post-Reconstruction.

The purpose of unearthing these truths, as Ayers said, “is not to make everyone feel okay about their past. We don’t study the past for our ancestors, we study it for ourselves.”

Donald Shriver address the audience

It is difficult to face painful truths squarely; “All of us remember the things in our past that our most hurtful,” Donald Shriver said, and added that we must be honest with ourselves.  A southerner himself, he argued that the South must be honest with the fact that it was better off without slavery but rightly noted, “To be glad of defeat is not easy.” Subsequently, he argued for more compassion from the North toward those they fought against; to understand the difficulty Southerners often have in confronting history. Honest ambivalence and willingness to be ambivalent towards history is important, he argued, if we are to move forward. Quoting T.V. Smith, Shriver shared an inspiring perspective on finding common ground: “Compromise is when parties in conflict give up something dear, but not invaluable, in order to gain something truly invaluable.”

The talk was an invigorating one, that showed how much there is left to do in addressing the legacy of the Civil War in America. One of the main points emerged was truth telling. Don’t tear down existing monuments, the panelists agreed, erect new ones instead. Counteract pervasive historical mythologies with context and fact. We have certainly come far from the period in American history where at least one person was lynched each year, but we have gotten here through the actions and choices of people. It may be as Smith said, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, that “the moral arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. The shorter term, however, requires agency.  “History is not going any particular place,” said Blight. “We have to make it!”

One Response leave one →
  1. Arleigh Birchler permalink
    December 16, 2011

    Myth is neither true nor false. It is just the way the mind understands everything all at once. It exists below all of our rational thought, reasoning, and truth finding. It is a difficult thing to change, but it does change, often slowly over years, sometimes all at once through some sort of personal revelation. (The wound that needs healing is far more than 150 years old, that was just when a crisis occurred in the healing process.)

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