Thursday, December 15, 2011

When Does War End?: Or, the Long History of the Civil War

With great interest I read an article in the Atlantic, "Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War," by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The author questions black "alienation" from the Civil War. Here's an excerpt from Coates's thoughtful commentary:

The message has long been clear: the Civil War is a story for white people—acted out by white people, on white people’s terms—in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props. We are invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative.

Coates encourages African Americans to claim the Civil War as their own. For his part, Coates developed a strong commitment to the study of the war, he informs his audience, after reading James McPherson's Pulitzer prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom. Transformed, Coates is now, he says, a "Civil War buff." That is, he faithfully reads books about Civil War battles and visits Civil War battlegrounds, only to find himself the only black at these historic sites.

I'm afraid my impulse is to reject Coates's premise, or at the very least, to ask for a more precise definition of "war." In my view, many blacks do study the Civil War if "war" is broadly defined.  If "the war" is taken to include its causes (e.g. slavery), its aftermath or consequences (e.g. Black Codes, vagrancy, Reconstruction, Jim Crow), or the people involved in the war and related matters (e.g. soldiers, abolitionists), then surely blacks take a strong interest in the Civil War and all that it means in American history. What interests them, I'd say, is the "long history" of the Civil War (to play on Jacqueline Dowd Hall's "long civil rights movement" metaphor).  Only when war is defined as the narrow period between 1861 and 1865, the battles, battlefields and personalities of the period, is Coates's premise--that few blacks study the war--plausible.

The real question animating Coates's commentary, then, appears to be why there are so few black Civil War "buffs."  That very different question is not one that I'm prepared to answer.    

However, some "Civil War buffs" are coming to terms with the long history of the Civil War, as I've defined it. This past summer an organizer of events commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War invited me to speak in Atlanta on the relationship between the civil rights movement and the Civil War. The organizer explained that he thought it important to tie the history of the Civil War to the history of the black freedom struggle: the two belong together. What's more, he noted that the history of the war should also be grouped with the history of black suffering after the war.  Thus, Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name: The Reenslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, also had been invited to present at the sesquicentennial events.  Honored to receive the invitation, I could not accept it due to other commitments.    

If I had accepted the invitation, how might I have connected civil rights to the Civil War? I could have turned to Atlanta's rich history, of course, as a point of departure for joining matters of war and rights with an exploration of local and national. But I also might have turned to the rich history of Georgia's neighboring state, the one where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

The long history of the town of Edgefield County, South Carolina would have worked well for these purposes. The town is well known to historians of the South.  It was the home of  Confederate General James Longstreet, ten governors and many "fine" Southern families, including a "planter elite," according to Orville Burton, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning, In My Father's House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield County, South Carolina. The county's fine families included many lawyers who erected or worked to maintain the legal infrastructure of white supremacy following Reconstruction.  Two stand out, both U.S. Senators.  In the 1890s, Senator Ben Tillman, a former member of a paramilitary white supremacist group and then governor of South Carolina, called the 1895 constitutional convention that imposed Jim Crow laws and ensured black disfranchisement through literacy tests, poll taxes and the like. That story is told in Stephen Kantrowitz's prize-winning book, Bill Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy. Senator Strom Thurmond, the 1948 Dixiecrat presidential candidate, known both for his record-long filibuster against the Civil  Rights Act of 1957 and for fathering a child with his family's African-American housekeeper, rose from Edgefield, as well. (His daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, told her story in Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond).

During the mid- twentieth century, Edgefield County resisted racial change on an epic scale. It defied Brown v. Board of Education until the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, armed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a Supreme Court ruling, demanded change. Still, well into the 1970s, the county refused to meaningfully desegregate its schools. Blacks and whites attended separate classes. Whites displayed hostility to integration by retaining symbols of the Old Confederacy. The school band played Dixie at athletic contests.  The Confederate Rebel served as the school mascot, and the Rebel flag flew on the school flagstaff. In a federal lawsuit, blacks argued that these emblems of the Confederacy constituted "badges and incidents of slavery" in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Resistance touched other aspects of the town's life--into the 1970s. Edgefield totally excluded blacks from grand juries. It maintained segregated chain gangs. No blacks worked in county government well into the 1970s.   Edgefield fought black political participation tooth and nail, long after the Civil War's official end.  In a 1986 vote dilution case, Jackson v. Edgefield County, 650 F.Supp. 1176 (S.C. 1986), a federal district court found, "White supremacists" fought to preserve white rule through acts of "physical intimidation and violence" into the mid-twentieth century. Laughlin McDonald, the ACLU lawyer who successfully sued the county school board and county council for diluting the black vote, discusses the county's intransigence in a compelling first-person account, Civil Rights in the Modern Era: Edgefield County, South Carolina, A Personal Reflection, 1 Stan. J.C.R. & C.L. 303 (August, 2005).

All told, Edgefield's history between the Civil War and the 1970s reveals remarkably little racial change. Literally speaking, the Civil War had ceased as of 1865. But the facts of life in this Southern county reveal it to be an excellent point of departure for exploring the long history of the Civil War.

I should acknowledge that I know this town and its fascinating political, social and legal history not only through research. I was born in Edgefield County, SC in 1970, and lived my first five years there.