The 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides is upon us, and it should be quite a contrast to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War that was observed earlier this month.
The struggle to desegregate public facilities in the Jim Crow South would be hard to re-enact, though it would make for interesting street theater.
Maybe someone could stage the Battle of Birmingham. Don’t recall that one? May 14, 1961: Hundreds of Klansmen surround a bus and proceed to beat a group of black and white Freedom Riders with lead pipes and baseball bats while Bull Connor’s police force look away.
Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a re-enactment, since one side was unarmed and committed to nonviolence.
But I conjure this absurd image for a reason. To many of us who care about America and its history, there is something just as bizarre about play-acting the epic battles of the Civil War without acknowledging why they had to be fought in the first place.
Race is the one ingredient that’s indispensable to understanding America, yet it’s the one ingredient we’re always trying to take out. As recently as the 2009 “beer summit” — when President Barack Obama intervened in the dispute between a black Harvard professor and a white police officer — many in the media expressed wonder that we still had not moved “beyond race.”
There was another time in America when the majority felt it was time to move “beyond race.” And that act of national forgetfulness is what connects the Civil War to the Freedom Rides.
“Why was the war fought — was it about slavery or states’ rights?” asked Glenn McConnell, a South Carolina state senator, at a ceremony marking the 150th anniversary of the assault on Fort Sumter.
McConnell continued, “What does the Confederate battle flag stand for? Is it a symbol of bigotry or a memorial to the valor of fallen soldiers? ... Many of the emotional issues still rage.”
They rage, in part, because people who ought to know better keep alive the fiction that the Civil War was not fought over slavery. McConnell’s use of fair-and-balanced rhetoric reframed our nation’s darkest hour as just another battle of opinions, like everything you see on TV. And it worked. A widely reprinted April 12 Associated Press story about the war’s outbreak mentioned slavery precisely once — in the quote from McConnell.
Public officials were not always so ambivalent about the war’s origins. In his 1861 inaugural address, the new pro-slavery governor of Missouri, Claiborne Fox Jackson, served notice to the federal government that any interference with slaveholders’ rights would be cause to take the state into the Confederacy.
Missouri must “stand by her sister slaveholding States, in whose wrongs she participates and with whose institution and people she sympathizes,” Jackson thundered.
Slaveholding Missouri stayed in the Union, but the ideology of slave power permeated one secession document after another — the “sovereignty” of states to turn human beings into private property.
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world,” declared the Georgia secessionists.
If the Civil War began with one side’s need to enslave African-Americans, it ended only after the other side had enlisted nearly 200,000 black men equally determined to crush the institution.
In “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in history last week, Eric Foner reminds us of the crucial role that race played as the war was prosecuted. The flood of black recruits not only bolstered the Union army, they also spurred a decisive shift in Lincoln’s views.
For most of his life, Lincoln held moderate positions on slavery, being opposed to the institution and to its immediate abolition. He supported an African colony for freed slaves. And he enjoyed a good “darkie” joke like any other ordinary American of his day.
Foner details how Lincoln’s respect for black Americans grew measurably during the Civil War. By the end, he realized that these self-liberating men, through the blood they shed in battle, had earned emancipation and a place at the table of postwar reconciliation.
But African-Americans were driven away from that table. Here is where national memory, and its revision, played such an insidious part.
In the decades following the war, white veterans on both sides began to hold parades and picnics together. Bonded by their shared life-and-death struggle, they increasingly chose to let bygones be bygones.
This “reunion” movement was fueled by pro-Confederate groups eager to blot out the racial origins of the war. They aggressively pushed for what David Blight, in his book “Race and Reunion,” called “a segregated memory of the Civil War on Southern terms.”
It was the country’s first culture war and the South won it. Their flag flies again.
From segregated memories it was not a huge leap to segregated schools and segregated facilities. Jim Crow became a way of life that the South enforced and the North respected. It endured until another army rose up to wage a culture war of their own.
That is the subject of “Freedom Riders,” a powerful new documentary by Stanley Nelson that begins airing May 16 on PBS.
In April 1961, a group organized by the Congress for Racial Equality integrated a bus heading south from St. Louis. They made it as far as Sikeston, Mo., before they were arrested.
And that was in Missouri.
CORE’s leaders knew that in Mississippi and Alabama, the activists would be treated worse. But something had to be done. John F. Kennedy may have owed his victory to the black vote, but his inaugural address ignored civil rights, even as the new president pledged to defend freedom “in all corners of the Earth.”
To cure Kennedy’s — and the nation’s — forgetfulness, CORE planned a two-week tour from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. Its volunteers made out wills as evidence that they knew the stakes. They took part in drills where toughs pretended to harass and beat them. (Re-enactments before the fact, you might say.)
Genevieve Hughes, a white Freedom Rider, recalled that the training sessions felt like “make-believe” — a sign of how little she and other white CORE volunteers knew about segregated society.
Only after Birmingham — and Anniston, where a second group of Freedom Riders was attacked earlier in the day and its bus set ablaze — did Jim Crow become frighteningly real to everyone.
And then the movement had the weapons it needed for victory: both the soaring rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. and the ugly media images that gave King’s words urgency.
I often find civil rights documentaries deeply moving, and “Freedom Riders” was that way for me. I never get tired of watching young people embrace that dangerous cause so fearlessly, even joyously, and then prevail without weapons (well, other than the ones the National Guard were toting).
But I also find race endlessly fascinating. It’s the barely visible thread that works its way through the entire American fabric, and I don’t always see it until someone points it out.
Take “Treme,” the HBO drama about life in New Orleans after Katrina. Season 2 began Sunday night with the usual gumbo of story lines. But the stories that keep me riveted to this show are all about black New Orleanians: the junk hauler whose Federal Emergency Management Association contract keeps a whole neighborhood alive; the perpetually broke musician scrapping for gigs; the teachers whose schools are taken over by well-intentioned outsiders.
Everyone on “Treme,” white or black, has lost some control over his or her life since Katrina. For the African-Americans, though, that is compounded by a historic sense of powerlessness that I can only imagine.
“Treme” creator David Simon is, to be sure, weaving fictions. But he does so with a journalist’s yen to tell people things they didn’t know before. For many of us, those things have to do with race. Which makes me wonder: When people look back at Katrina 50 years from now, whose memories will they recall? Whose stories will be passed on as reality?
—“The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” by Eric Foner (W.W. Norton, $13 paperback)
—“Freedom Riders”: A companion volume to the PBS film is an abridged version of Raymond Arsenault’s book by the same name (Oxford, $11 paperback).
—“Treme”: Season 2 began at Sunday night on HBO
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