The 50th anniversary of two civil rights landmarks

Posted June 11th, 2013 by
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Today marks the 50th anniversary of two major landmarks in the civil rights movement: George Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door” over desegregation at the University of Alabama, and President Kennedy’s address to the nation announcing what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“The Stand in the Schoolhouse Door”

George Wallace at the University of Alabama, June 11, 1963On the morning of June 11, 1963, Governor George Wallace of Alabama personally and physically intervened, in front of television cameras, to attempt to block the desegregation of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The deputy attorney general of the United States, Nicholas Katzenbach, was present in person to request that Wallace step aside. When that request was rebuffed by the governor, General Henry Graham of the Alabama National Guard, having been federalized by President John F. Kennedy, ordered the governor to stand aside. Wallace complied, after first complaining to the news cameras about this “unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion” by the federal government on the affairs of Alabama.

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Confederate flag hung in old N.C. State Capitol

Posted March 29th, 2013 by
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Confederate flag at old N.C. State Capitol

Update: The A.P. is reporting, several hours after its story was first published, that the Confederate flag will be taken down this weekend.

The Associated Press is reporting this afternoon that a Confederate battle flag has been hanging in the House chamber in the old North Carolina State Capitol since last week.

The flag is hanging as part of an historical display, according to State Historic Sites Director Keith Hardison, and should be viewed in that context. Hardison, who is also a Civil War re-enactor, has close ties to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which has led efforts throughout the South to rehabilitate the image of the Confederate flag as a symbol of southern heritage.

The Confederate flag is controversial because it invokes the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow for some, while others believe it symbolizes their southern heritage. Historian David Goldfield, author of Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History (2002), acknowledges both perspectives but argues that the flag cannot be divorced from its racist past:

The history of the Confederate battle flag, how it was designed and formulated, how it has been used through the years, clearly states that it is a flag of white supremacy.

I know current Sons of Confederate Veterans would dispute that, saying ‘Hey, I’m not a racist.’ But the fact remains that the battle flag was used by a country that had as its foundation the protection and extension of human bondage.

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Historical myths and coded slave quilts on the Underground Railroad

Posted March 29th, 2013 by
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"Women's Quilts as Art"Historian Paul Finkelman writes at The Root about the discovery of a sixth-grade reading comprehension test, online from the Massachusetts Department of Education, which reiterates the old myth that coded quilts were used to warn runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad.

This old legend, about coded messages in quilts which told escaped slaves of safe houses and routes to freedom, is common in the United States. Historians agree, however, that there is no truth to these detailed assertions; as Finkelman puts it, this myth has long been known to be “totally fabricated.” Nevertheless, the story of coded slave quilts has frequently been written about as truth, and the story often appears in the interpretation of slavery for the public at historic sites.

This is an appealing myth for many Americans, blending as it does the horrors of slavery with the bravery of the enslaved, who are seeking their own freedom; in some versions of the story, the quilts are even made and displayed by progressive white southerners, doing their part to fight the injustice of their society.

At the Tracing Center, we believe strongly in the importance of separating truth from fiction in conveying the history of slavery to the general public. Myths like that of the slave quilt never contribute to a better understanding of this history or its legacy today, and often exist precisely because they serve to obscure historical realities that would otherwise challenge comforting notions that keep us from deeper understanding of our heritage and its consequences.

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What I hope Obama’s second inaugural will address

Posted January 21st, 2013 by
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Today marks only the second time that Inauguration Day has coincided with our national holiday commemorating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and on this occasion, our first black president will be taking the oath of office for the second time.

Here is what I hope the president will include in his second Inaugural Address:

This year marks the coming together of two powerful anniversaries, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Today, 50 years after the civil rights movement and 150 years after the end of slavery, we have come a long way towards realizing the visions of Lincoln and King for a more just and inclusive society. Yet the legacies of slavery and race—the unfinished business of Civil War and civil rights—remain a crisis in our nation.

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The Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th anniversary in context

Posted January 1st, 2013 by
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Emancipation ProclamationToday is the first day of 2013. This is an anniversary year that we’ve been talking about, and anticipating, for a long time here at the Tracing Center.

In 2013, we will celebrate the 50th anniversaries of major civil rights era milestones, including the March on Washington and Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

Over the coming year, the nation will also mark the 150th anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, as well as the New York City Draft Riots (the violence of which was aimed mostly at the city’s free black population) and a host of other Civil War battles and dates.

The anniversaries of the Civil War and the civil rights movement are directly connected, as they represent two different, but closely related, stages in our society’s slow process of reckoning with its centuries-long embrace of slavery and racism. Exploring these anniversary dates, their connections, and their broader significance for racial healing and justice will constitute much of the Tracing Center’s work in the years 2013-2015.

Today, however, marks the 150th anniversary of perhaps the greatest of all of these events: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

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“Ten conservatives who have praised slavery”

Posted October 12th, 2012 by
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Arkansas State Rep. Jon Hubbard  (Credit: AP/Arkansas Secretary of State, Lori McElroy)Salon is running an essay today, entitled “Ten conservatives who have praised slavery.”

This essay, by Mark Howard of AlterNet, presents a list of ten well-known conservatives who have suggested that slavery was better than its reputation suggests, or that slavery should be viewed positively because of its impact on black Americans today.

This list was inspired by Arkansas state legislator Jon Hubbard, whose self-published book, it was revealed this week, called slavery “a blessing in disguise.” Hubbard is a conservative Republican, and Howard’s list includes such famous Republicans as Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Pat Buchanan, and Ann Coulter.

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Historian Eugene Genovese, 1930-2012

Posted October 1st, 2012 by
Category: History, Public History Tags: , ,

Eugene D. Genovese

It was reported this weekend that Eugene D. Genovese, Bancroft Prize-winning historian of slavery and the American South, has died at the age of 82.

Genovese was especially well known for his views on slavery in the antebellum South. In books such as Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1975), he redefined master-slave relations, arguing that southern slavery was fundamentally paternalistic.

This system of paternalism allowed masters to profit from slave labor, while slaves, Genovese argued, were able to pursue their humanity through a series of practical compromises with masters, mutual support, and inner strength.

While Edward Ayers praised Roll, Jordan, Roll as “the best book ever written about American slavery,” other historians believe Genovese minimized the horrors and brutality of slavery. Eric Foner, for instance, has argued that “paternalism” hardly seems an appropriate term to apply to chattel slavery, since parents generally do not buy and sell their children.

Genovese always claimed that he was not looking to justify slavery. His work also offered a strong defense of the American South, praising its values and culture as in many ways superior to the North’s.

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