Race,Slavery Central to Civil War Sesquicentennial by Thomas Martin Sobottke


A hundred and fifty years have passed since the nation made war upon itself threatening to dismiss the hopeful idea that the great masses of people could govern themselves and accept the proposition that all men are born free and equal. Amidst so much present distress Americans are largely indifferent to the passage of this milestone, the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.

The problems of contemporary America are tangled up in these very questions. Equal opportunity for all our people remains a goal rather than as something truly achieved. The people demonstrating in New York and hundreds of other cities are drawing our attention to economic inequalities that have grown so large in recent decades that middle class Americans can no longer compete successfully to advance themselves.

Worse still, people of color find themselves even less able to do so, not due to any naturally occurring impediments to their advancement, but to a lingering racial and ethnic bigotry that occupies the cracks and crevices and those dark corners of what Frederick Douglass called our “national edifice.” The stings and darts of racial prejudice are more subtle now, yet no less damaging.

Lingering racial attitudes from our past creep into our marking a century and a half since that great national conflict that so defined us as a nation and reset our course to more faithfully align with that of our founders intent and beliefs about what God provides every human being as a birthright.

In 2010 Governor Robert McDonnell of Virginia wrote a proclamation honoring Confederate veterans of the Civil War not thinking that then and now Virginia has a large population of African-Americans whose ancestors played a central role in the conflict and in pointing the way to the greater realization of that moral ideal with which the United States is most identified. Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi when asked why Southern states appeared to be ignoring the central role of black people to this period in our history replied that “it don’t mean diddly.”

A Time Magazine lead article just last year was titled “Why we are still fighting our Civil War.” Americans had yet to be told why the war occurred, and why the issues presented by it are still so vivid yet today.

A CNN poll conducted in April 2011 showed that forty-two percent of Americans still believe that something other than slavery and its attendant racial concerns had anything to do with the Civil War. More significant is that pollsters identified the old divisions, North and South, black and white, liberal and conservative as marking out how you are most likely to respond to such a poll.

North and South Magazine recently featured an article that denies that slavery was the cause of the American Civil War. Neither was vigorous defense of the rights of State governments to be sovereign and to leave the Union whenever they chose. It was a simple matter of economics asserted the writer of the article. The emerging Northern industrial free labor economy threatened the Southern rural, agrarian economy and its entire society requiring that defiant break up of the United States that led to war.

Of course, the writer failed to identify just what it was that made the Southern economy so different from its Northern neighbor; what economic fact of life permitted Southerners of wealth to obtain it and keep it. Of course it was the ownership of other human beings as property, and using this slave labor to make enormous profits off of Cotton, Rice, and Tobacco exported overseas. That it was and remains the economics of slave labor, and that tied to it were social attitudes among whites that were characterized by white racial supremacy was lost on the author.

I rather think the editor placed the article in his magazine almost out of some perverse desire to have people see it and realize that this emperor wears no clothes, that this dog just won’t hunt; that there has been grievous error made in the author’s thinking somewhere.

A reader wrote enthusiastically in response to the article that he was impressed by it and the magazine’s refreshing “unbiased, academic quality . . . completely lacking in liberal politically correct jargon and South bashing.”

Struggles for Justice and this writer plead guilty to the fact that opposing the ownership of one human being by another in a nation that proclaims “all men are created equal” is politically correct but not in the manner the writer of the letter to this magazine believes.

And the very idea that such a point of view as identifying slavery and white racial supremacy as being central to bringing on the Civil War and that African-Americans played a crucial role in helping re-define America then and since should in the twenty-first century in an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse America be a “liberal” or “leftist” point of view is disappointing. But it does square with the CNN poll and Time Magazine article telling us the Civil War rages on.

Next month, my first book Across That Dark River: The Civil War Memory will be released by Moving Train Books LLC and it places slavery and race as being at the core of the American Civil War. It goes further to show that African-Americans and their visionary white allies, Abolitionists and Radical Republicans, led the way to a new America, more in tune with our nation’s founding principles concerning liberty and equal opportunity.

The book argues that “the Union’s preservation in the Civil War sustained emancipation and the drive for equality. And we as a people learned the hard truth that without them the preservation of the United States, in turn, could not be sustained. The preservation of the Union requires us to become true to what we said we believed when the nation was born.”

As the nation moves through its observances of the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War at the very moment when the equal opportunity for all persons as citizens is under such severe trial, we would do well to remember what hard truths a previous generation learned about the overarching idea that all human beings are born free and equal and that some higher power wills that they have life, liberty and the freedom to pursue happiness as they define it.

Struggles for Justice will inform readers when Thomas Martin Sobottke’s book Across That Dark River: The Civil War Memory is available. It is to be offered for sale via Amazon.com and there will be direct live links to both that bookseller and the book and the author website. The book should be available to read with your Thanksgiving Turkey and that it will be the perfect Christmas gift for the reader of history and especially that of the Civil War.

The book’s strong civil rights message throughout will discomfit the kind of people who think racial eqality and brotherhood is equated with politcal correctness and South bashing and will delight those who champion such ideas.

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