Since at least the 1990s the National Park Service has largely succeeded in bringing attention to the underlying causes of the Civil War to audiences who visit relevant battlefields and historic sites. At the beginning of the war’s sesquicentennial in 2011 the Department of the Interior and the Park Service’s Washington leadership rolled out a five-year plan to commemorate the Civil War through the theme “Civil War to Civil Rights.” This initiative aims to remind park visitors of the war’s destruction and violence, but does so in a way that explicitly links the struggle to end slavery in the 1860s with the struggle to end segregation, disenfranchisement, and extra-legal violence against African Americans in the 1960s. Civil Rights Era parks like Central High School and Brown vs. Board of Education have also participated in “Civil War to Civil Rights,” although to what extent I’m not sure. Ultimately, the Park Service is using the Civil War sesquicentennial to “facilitate a deeper and broader public understanding and awareness of the significance of the events that precipitated the war, the war and its military actions, and Reconstruction, and the relevance to contemporary issues that are the legacy of the war” (6).
This approach has its advantages and disadvantages. I personally believe that discussing the underlying political, cultural, and economic tensions that precipitated the Civil War is appropriate and necessary when interpreting at a Civil War battlefield, and I believe we can do so while also honoring the soldiers whose choice to participate in this war may have transcended the concerns of Union and Confederate political leaders. By discussing slavery at Civil War battlefields and related historic sites I believe we offer our audiences a better context for understanding the coming of the Civil War that is also more historically accurate than focusing exclusively on military maneuvers and the mutual honor of those who fought in the war.
“Civil War to Civil Rights” and earlier initiatives like it offer an interpretive framework for addressing the war’s origins and the connections between the 1860s and 1960s, but how the history in between this 100-year period (especially Reconstruction from roughly 1863 to 1877) can and should be interpreted remains an open question. While I have no doubts that Civil War and Civil Rights sites are discussing the legacy of Reconstruction in some of their interpretive and educational programs, there are no Reconstruction-related sites within the NPS agency or a ten-year interpretive plan/theme in which to make that period a central focus of interpretation. And I agree with Bob Pollock when he states that “I believe most people make the automatic mental jump from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950-60s when they hear the theme ‘Civil War to Civil Rights,’ which is, I’m sure, what was intended. The jump from the Emancipation Proclamation and Appomattox to visions of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and lunch counter sit-ins is understandable since so many of us were actually living during that latter time period.”
If the above statement is correct, then it seems to me that “Civil War to Civil Rights” is only one theme in a number of themes that are worth exploring about the Civil War’s legacy. What about women, Native Americans, or Asian Americans and their struggles for civil rights? By focusing almost exclusively on the story of emancipation, Jim Crow, segregation, and nonviolent protest during the 1950s and 60s when we discuss “civil rights,” we run the risk of too narrowly defining the “Civil War to Civil Rights” narrative as a story only relevant to African Americans instead of a narrative relevant to all Americans. These sorts of narrow meanings pop up in other contexts too: “Gender” is not just a women’s issue, “immigration” is not just an issue about undocumented immigrants, and “poverty” is not just about poor people. These issues should have importance to everyone. “Civil Rights” should have meaning to everyone because the abridgement of one person’s rights could affect all of our rights.
In 2013 the legendary activist and Congressman John Lewis was arrested for the forty-fifth time in his life for blocking traffic to the U.S. Capitol during a demonstration in support of immigration reform. Following his release an African American woman from California called his office and asked why he cared so much about immigration. Lewis stated the following in a television interview about that call:
We all live in America, we all live in the same house, the American house. And I’m not going to segregate my concern for human rights . . . I didn’t get arrested for black people alone. I got arrested for all America: blacks, whites, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans, and it was not about [segregating] my concerns and my feelings . . . I’m not going to give up on my convictions. I have a conscience to live with.
As we conclude the Civil War sesquicentennial, we can take pride in the remarkable interpretive changes we’ve made to incorporate slavery and emancipation into the American Civil War’s narrative. It’s my hope that we can now find ways to discuss the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and show visitors how the ongoing struggle for human rights has meaning to all of us.