The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture

By Alice Fahs; Joan Waugh | Go to book overview

Civil War, Cold War, Civil Rights

The Civil War Centennial in Context, 1960–1965

Jon Wiener

"If the South has lost the Civil War, it is determined to win the centennial."1 So said a West Virginia critic of the centennial observances quoted in the New York Times in 1961. The reference, of course, was to the renewal of the civil rights movement, especially the dramatic sit-ins that had begun during the spring of 1960. The sit-ins had started at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February and spread rapidly. By October four national chains capitulated and announced the integration of 150 stores in 112 cities, and by the end of the year the sit-in movement had involved 70,000 participants sitting-in in 100 cities, resulting in 3, 600 arrests—making them the largest direct action protests in American history. In this context Civil War commemoration became a political battlefield, an opportunity for supporters and opponents of civil rights, and for the president and others uncommitted on the issues, to reconsider and redefine the meaning of the Civil War, to find heroes and villains, to decide, in the words of David W. Blight, "what was lost and what was won."2

The dominant memory of the Civil War had changed little since the fiftieth anniversary observances in 1913, which, as Blight has shown, had been a celebration of white reconciliation and white supremacy. This is the version that had subsequently dominated the history books and the school curriculum as well as public and political life. What had been lost was the emancipationist vision of the war rooted in African Americans' memories of their own fight for freedom, in the politics of radical Reconstruction, and more generally in the notion that the war, by winning citizenship and constitutional equality for blacks, had reinvented the republic and advanced democracy. That reality had been repressed by a sentimental and romantic racism that, in Blight's words, served as "a mother lode of nostalgia" for the white supremacist ideology that had dominated the national memory every since.3

But the civil rights movement made it clear that the centennial would be

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