Today marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War and the beginning of several events that will take place during the year to commemorate it.
The war means different things to different people in the United States, which often depends on the color of their skin or which part of the country they come from. For many Southern whites, it’s an excuse to don period costumes and re-enact battles. It’s also an opportunity, critics say, to perpetuate mistruths about why the war was fought in the first place.
It is not uncommon in the South, where many Confederate flags still fly, to hear that it was to protect states’ rights. Some even reject the term civil war, preferring instead to call it “the war between states” or “the war of northern aggression.”
African-Americans, upon hearing of the anniversary, may consider the many other things they have to worry about—from finding a job to maintaining the roofs over their heads, particularly if they live above the Mason-Dixon line—and say, ”Who cares?”
But according to Bill Thomas, associate vice president for governmental relations at Hampton University, they should care. First, he says, it’s important to participate in the debate to help set the record straight that the war began because one side believed that one human being could own another, based solely on skin color. Thomas suspects that a majority of white Southern troops had no idea what cause they were fighting for and that the myth of northern aggression and other “Disneyland tales” exacerbate the racist views and racial mistrust that still exist in the South.
It also provides an opportunity for African-Americans to be proud of their history—the 179,000 or so Black volunteers who served in the Union Army and another 19,000 in the Navy—as well as the bravery and endurance of those forced to live as slaves.
“If our children understood the great legacy and stature of our ancestors, we would have a better understanding of our value and wouldn’t have so many disparities in African-American communities, such as the breakdown of the family,” Thomas said.
Still, he can’t help being miffed by the so-called celebrations taking place in Virginia, where it all began. “I’m against the state using my tax dollars to force this lie on me and perpetuate an untruthful story,” Thomas said.
South Carolina State Sen. Bakari Sellers told BET.com that Confederate flags are flying all around the state and while many citizens are celebrating, others still harbor fears about what once was.
“We always have history and then his story. I want to make sure the storytelling is fact and not people rewriting history,” Sellers said. He believes African-Americans should pay attention and learn everything they can about the Civil War.
“It’s a very important part of our country’s history and an invaluable part of my state’s history that helps frame for me the debate and understand the dialogue we’re having in our political arena even 150 years later,” Sellers said.