Letters, speeches and articles written by those who established and supported the Confederacy now make it difficult, if not impossible, to deny that slavery was the central issue for which the South waged war against the North during the Civil War.
Unfortunately, today, many Southern white Americans still resist this fact, citing instead states’ rights, taxes or the election of Abraham Lincoln as president as the catalyst for war. Some delude themselves by celebrating or mourning the Civil War’s benchmarks — like the fall of Atlanta in 1864 — by wearing Confederate uniforms and reenacting battles, disregarding the fact that their ancestors were actually fighting to enslave other human beings.
Many African-Americans, including me, are offended by these “celebrations,” especially when revelers speak fondly of the “Southern way of life that was lost” because, after all, that way of life was founded on white supremacy supported by black slave labor.
In spite of the many who still “look the other way” to separate the Civil War from the issue of slavery, there seems little reason for African-Americans to refuse to commemorate, in meaningful ways, the end of the Civil War — particularly since the most obvious result of the end of that crisis was the emancipation of nearly 4 million African slaves, along with three amendments to the Constitution that abolished slavery and promised the freed people full and equal citizenship.
Yes, notwithstanding the promises made by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, African-Americans did not actually get most of their civil rights for another hundred years, and only as a result of the civil rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which legally ended segregation and disparate treatment.
But there wouldn’t have been a civil rights movement if the Civil War had turned out differently. So, in reality, these two events are interconnected. Not only because they transformed the consciousness of American society by ending overt racism, but because they were catalysts that brought a new awareness to our country. Entire campaigns for change around the world grew out of the courageous effort of the civil rights movement to achieve human rights and liberty for all people.
So the way I see it, the fall of Atlanta was the beginning of a long period of painful labor that ultimately resulted in the rebirth of our nation in the 1960s during the civil rights movement. This is a past that should not be forgotten, much less scorned, by anyone.
Nor should it be celebrated by overlooking the horrors. Rather, next year, we should all mark the two anniversaries as historic moments that strengthened human rights, making it possible for African-Americans like me to embrace our nation free of fear and frustration.
In so doing, perhaps white Americans can honestly embrace the past, leaving behind decades of guilt and condemnation, knowing that this nation’s tortured history of race relations and conflict ultimately welded together a nation of greater tolerance and acceptance that today all of us can enjoy.
Leah Ward Sears, an Atlanta attorney, is former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.