Waite Rawls: How should the country mark the sesquicentennial?

By Waite Rawls
President and chief executive of the Museum of the Confederacy

Let me start with how the country should not mark the Sesquicentennial.

First, it should not mark it by omission. As we say the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag, we should remember that the war created “one nation indivisible;” it established “freedom for all;” and it advanced the cause of “justice for all.” Two percent of the country’s population was killed, and thirteen percent of its population was freed. It made us who we are. Yet, many people would like to forget it or to say that the most important event in our nation’s history is not relevant.


Many want to avoid it because it is just a pinprick away from issues of racism. The Confederacy, the Confederate flag, the playing of “Dixie” — all evoke shame by some and blame by some. At the same time, they evoke pride in heritage and patriotic duty to others. And the passion of each argument drowns out the complexity of the causes, the conduct, and the legacies of our national crucible. So many people simply duck the issue. Politicians know, or soon learn, to steer clear of it. And institutional funders, foundations, and corporations — those people whose philanthropy proudly supports issues of far less consequence — evade the issue.

Second, the country should not mark the Sesquicentennial the same way that it marked the Centennial. In the years after the war, the veterans of both sides found ways to put aside their previous differences and reunite the country. They celebrated the soldiers — those in blue and those in gray. They spoke eloquently of their courage, speaking of the call of patriotic duty felt by those who risked or gave up their lives. This phenomenon continued right into the Centennial, as the legacy of the celebration of the soldiers’ valor carried on.

There was only one problem. To help them heal the wounds of the country, the veterans stopped talking about slavery and freedom.

African American issues and the contribution of African Americans to the conduct of the conflict were put aside as the nation entered the era of Jim Crow. This phenomenon also continued right into the Centennial. Landing squarely in the middle of the Civil Rights era, the Centennial appeared to be “for white people only” and brought cries of protest from the descendants of those people perhaps most affected by the war.

This time around, we cannot omit the issue of slavery, the conduct of African Americans during the war, or the legacy of their omission from previous commemorations. We cannot and should not avoid contentious issues, but must confront them as forthrightly and constructively as possible.

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