In the aftermath of the Civil War, America was left to consider the sacrifices made and why God continued to shed His grace on thee. And so, the nation rallied around the man that saved the Union and who once again made us “One Nation Under God.” In a strange way, Lincoln was a savior, perhaps not of mankind, but an ideal of freedom and the preservation of the Union. It was in search of such ideals that immigrants flocked to the shores of America at the turn of the 20th century.
Lincoln was placed high on a mountain alongside the pantheon of American heroes. It was a mountain that most immigrants were not too weary to climb. Upon the mountaintop, they did not find men enshrined in stone, but the hopes and dreams of America. From lips carved in stone, the silent voice utters a legacy that could be softly heard in any language. To them, the dialect of equality and opportunity spoke clearly. It was a sound whispered by the winds across dry and fertile land. A quiet sound carried as high as the Rocky Mountains and through their valleys of despair.
It was a voice telling America that it should not be afraid of the demons of its past because it dared to embrace the better angels of its future. Yet, the demons from the past still haunted America, and what emerged was not an America illuminated by the vibrant colors of a shared humanity, but one clouded by the black and white colors of racial prejudice, bigotry and discrimination in the form of Jim Crow.
History attests that Lincoln’s story and the story of black emancipation are henceforth inextricably linked to the epic struggle of the American Civil War and to America’s creed. However, history also attests that the Civil War did not grant African Americans Civil Rights. So, the relationship between Lincoln, the Civil War and African Americans remains bittersweet. Many African Americans are grateful for his leadership, but some are repelled by statues across the South that resurrect the dark demons of our past. Yet, through the ages, Lincoln has become that beacon of freedom for all Americans black and white. He was the nation’s first martyr to be grieved by a humble and bereaved nation in the aftermath of war. Still, nearly a century after his tragic death there would be other national martyrs that also gave “the last full measure of devotion” not for the cause of freedom but the cause of equality.
There is a nexus between the Civil Rights movement that I lived through and the Civil War that goes beyond the common word “civil” and strikes a common chord at our shared humanity. The Civil Rights movement was yet another civil war fought without the arms of men. Yet, it rested in the arms of God. In just about every church in the African American community, prayers and hymns were offered: “Pass me not, O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry; while on others thou art calling, do not pass me by!” Were the sounds that were sung by the Church choirs. They were the sounds of my youth as I sat mystified by the spectacle around me.
Like the movies of that era, it was shown in black and white and those that dared to cross the color line were met with the utmost cruelty. This was the hidden legacy of the Civil War. A legacy of Jim Crow and Black Codes that circumscribed opportunities and drew circles around the humanity of America’s black citizens.
A century after Lincoln’s death, the bells of freedom and equality lay mute amidst the lurid sounds of racism and discrimination. Between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction was reconstructed, and America embraced a new form of racism. Thus, the sacred gift of freedom was wrapped in fresh paper that so much resembled the racial draping of old. Slavery had died a hideous death in the South, but discrimination was still much alive “From Sea to Shining Sea”. Gone with the wind was the brutality of slavery replaced by noble images of the South. Such images, in literature, theater and carved in stone, depicted chivalrous Southerners defending their land against carpetbaggers, scalawags and incompetent Negroes in positions of power.
Reconstruction had been labeled as a complete failure and as a ten-year punishment against the South. When in fact; Reconstruction failed the “Negro” and not the other way around. Initiatives such as the Freedmen’s Bureau that was formed to help former slaves were viewed by many whites as nothing more than welfare and free money to black people. Reconstruction had to fail, because so many in power, most noted was Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson, wanted it to fail. The image of the lazy “ignorant nigger”, wanting handouts from hard-working white man began to permeate the American landscape.
But this was the image that the South wanted to project, to turn the tide of public opinion in the North and to keep black people out of the West, the newly-found land of milk and honey. Anyone, that was not free, white and 21 was not an American citizen, but instead, an unwanted denizen. During Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan came in and the U.S. Army went out. As a result, in the dawn’s early light of a new century, the freedom of black people declined as the Gilded Age emerged on a new horizon of opportunity for people of European descent.
When the South lost one cause, it found another in the discrimination and terrorism aimed at black people. And for the most part, the North turned a blind eye to such forms of oppression and instituted and subscribed to more covert forms of discrimination within its domain.
The Civil War did not change the Southern mind. Unfortunately, the only thing reconstructed during Reconstruction was the method of oppressing freedom and denying African Americans of their rights guaranteed in the Constitution. When a backroom deal was made between the South and Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 to grant him the presidency, the South was essentially given carte blanche as all Reconstruction initiatives were terminated. During Reconstruction, tremendous progress was made. It was a primary goal of many former slaves to become educated and some African Americans were elected to Congress.
Such achievements, however, were not met with praise from Southern whites. Instead, they were viewed as an existential threat to their way of life. The South replaced the ominous sting of the plantation whip, with night rides of terror and white men dressed in white sheets. They burned the cross, not in devotion to Christ, but rather, in praise of their whiteness and their divine right to rule over African Americas whom they often referred to as niggers! This became the new religion of the South.
With a handshake and a nod, a new era of separate but equal was ushered in, and it lasted more than four score and seven years. Contrary to the myths embraced and proliferated about Southern whites being oppressed during Reconstruction, it lasted as short as three years in some states and as long as ten years in only three states. Hayes’ Democratic successor, Grover Cleveland campaigned on the premise that the Republican Party was the party of “nigger lovers.” Four years later, the United States Supreme Court granted official approval to racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson.
The negative image of Reconstruction was embraced by plebeians and intellectuals across the American landscape. So much so that during the Fiftieth Anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, President Wilson did not mention slavery at all. By this time, Southern propaganda replete with its “happy slaves” made the Civil War all about “states’ rights”. Woodrow Wilson was the first Southern Democrat elected president since the Civil War. He saw nothing wrong with the Southern ethos. Instead, the proselytizer of world peace and visionary of the League of Nations after the First World War placated the racist South and supported Jim Crow in his own nation. “Separate but Equal” was the law of the land in the Land of the Free. But, in reality, it meant separate and unequal.
Segregation was present in various forms in every state and within Federal institutions most prominent was the military. Reconstruction was thus the honeymoon period that proved to black people that when white folks fight, they kiss and make up. But when white and black folks fight, the best they can do is kiss.
The union that Lincoln so much desired was complete, and it was a union of white people united in their discrimination against black folks. De facto segregation existed throughout America except, for in the South where it was de jure. For example, it did not matter if a black man, Dr. Charles Drew, created a process in which blood could be stored. Thus, saving countless lives during World War II. The blood had to be separated between blacks and whites although, in reality, it was equal.
Slavery had become an anachronism. Nevertheless, placating the South, in the name of union at the expense of the so-called Negro, was still business as usual in America. It is most unfortunate that during the century between The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington; equality was not delivered “with all deliberate speed,” but with the procrastination of a nation mired in prejudice and bemused by its creed.
As the voice of men like W.E.B. Du Bois cried out for equality, it was muted by a chorus of white harmony at the expense of its black equality. The hymn of white supremacy was sung throughout the land. In the past, the slave-master ruled with the whip in his hand. But Jim Crow and Black Codes were not aimed at the backs of black folk, they were lashes aimed at their minds. It was to remind black citizens that blackness was a curse in America.
America had welcomed wave upon wave of European immigrants under the banner of “Give me your tired, your poor; Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” They came to this nation and to be greeted by its Statue of Liberty. Although it is a statue inspired by the Civil War victory and the end of slavery, it became a beacon of freedom and opportunity for European expatriates and not the black patriots that fought for freedom in its land.
Although this statue sits in American waters like the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, it is tainted by the injustice and inequality of the land. America became the melting pot for people of European descent. Because of the whiteness of their skin and the privileges granted, these immigrants could get into that pot. Yet, black folks remained in a separate and unequal pot. A bastion not of freedom and equality but a cauldron of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice. The South could not put the slavery genie back in the bottle, but it could use its power to circumvent the 14th and 15th amendments.
“Separate but Equal” was more than a law. It was a metaphor for white supremacy and white privilege, and a constant reminder of white dominance and hegemony over black people. It was a hideous law that made African Americans ride in the back of the bus or prohibited them from going to a college that they paid taxes for; or from voting in a democratic system. A commandment that made black citizens get in line behind all white denizens of foreign or domestic origin. A decree written by the hand of hubris that made some citizens more equal than others.
In the decades following the inauguration of this statue in 1886, the South erected numerous statues throughout its land commemorating traitors to this nation. There is nothing wrong in erecting cenotaphs to the valor of the fallen in the name of history and heritage. Many of these statues, however, were erected as a testament to their hubris, and their desire to resurrect the demons of the past. The former mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu explains:
After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge. The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity
Nevertheless, one hundred years after the battle of Gettysburg and the Emancipation Proclamation, the voice of freedom and equality in America, long muted by the sounds of prejudice, and the trumpets of two foreign wars was once again heard. A lot had changed in those one hundred years. The nation that Lincoln fought to keep together was now the most powerful nation on earth. As the new shining beacon of freedom and democracy for the world, its light was dimmed by its hypocrisy that was self-evident around the globe. Equality for all its citizens remained a distant dream amid the nightmares of its past.
During the Civil War, it was the photograph that recorded the horrors of the war and slavery. A century later television broadcasted the long injustice of the African American plight and likewise, the veil of American democracy was lifted before the world. The brutality of the South was on display and the world got a glimpse of what democracy really looked like in America. What they saw was not streets paved with gold, but with the feet of those that demanded that America live up to its creed. Even amid such pressures, such hypocrisy and such hubris, the South would not relent. Yet, there were some whites in America, some out of shame and others out of rectitude that demanded change. But during the Civil War, the United States was isolated from the world. World War II, however, changed all of that as America emerged as the guardian and standard-bearer of democracy.
Furthermore, in the aftermath of World War II lay the disclosure of the atrocities committed in Germany, the development of the Atomic Bomb and the rise of Communism. Moreover, the walls of colonialism around the world began to fall. Mahatma Gandhi became a worldwide figure by using nonviolence to achieve his goal in India. When the United States pointed at the injustice and lack of freedom prevalent in Communism; and when they promoted America as the icon of democracy fighting to keep the world free, the Communists quickly pointed out the hypocrisy of the United States and the treatment of its African American citizens. From such milieu martyrs would emerge.
Just as John Brown and Lincoln emerged as American martyrs of the 1860s, the 1960s produced many martyrs, some black some white, some non-violent, some violent. The assassination of President Kennedy and his brother Robert was just one link in a chain of violence. The bombing of children at a church in Alabama, the overt objection to blacks attending white universities and riding in the front of the bus, the slaying of Civil Rights leaders. All these events were broadcast around the world and the United States could not be the exemplar of democracy and freedom and at the same time its oppressor.
Malice was directed toward some and defended by others that believed the so-called Negro to be “so far inferior that he had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” All passages toward total equality in the South were blocked as Governor George Wallace stood in the doorways of a state university and proclaimed “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” “History had indeed repeated itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” America’s brand of democracy was under attack at home and abroad, and many wondered why America was so willing to fight a war in Vietnam for democracy and freedom when they did not have it at home?
Just as many pioneering events defined the Civil War, many groundbreaking events defined the Civil Rights movement. The Gettysburg Address delivered by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 became the iconic speech that defined the Civil War. A century later, Dr. King’s I Have a Dream Speech did likewise. The March on Washington in 1963 was a seminal event in the history of the United States with people from all over the nation descending on its capital.
They gathered on the Mall that a century or so ago was the capital of slave traders and brokers. As if the souls of their fallen forefathers had summoned them there to display a salient tribute to the unseen sacrifices that made such a day possible. In the shadows of the Washington Monument, men and women of all races and all creeds stood firmly to resurrect the calls for freedom, justice and equality. The Founding Fathers pledged a solemn oath that was written in the laws and principles of the nation, but it was seldom practiced by its people. Yet, on August 28, 1963, thousands upon thousands of Americans pledged their sacred oath to a new day as they marched toward their destination of Civil Rights for all Americans.
They were not afraid to climb to the mountaintop to share a lucid dream with an eloquent preacher. They hoped, dreamed, and prayed for “A More Perfect Union” and asked a merciful God to let the bells of freedom ring. They shared a common vision that someday, people would be “judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.” There, they heard the preacher solemnly speak, of the peaks and the valleys of our nation in the voice of his deprived people. Lincoln once said: “In giving freedom to the slave we assured freedom to the free”. A century later. President Johnson said: “[the Negro] cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
In honor of those words, we cannot be afraid to let freedom ring from every mountaintop in America. We cannot be afraid to let the rays of equality cast out the darkness of injustice that has haunted us for so long. We must as “One Nation under God with Liberty and Justice for all,” climb that sacred mountain as former master and former slave; to prove to our children that we are the home of the brave. We must cast out the demons from our old and distant past, and then scream atop that mountain that we are finally free at last!
On that day, in his temple of justice, Lincoln sat soberly; sometimes in the light, sometimes in silhouette, reminding the nation of its creed and its promise of equality for all its citizens. During Lincoln’s lifetime, the nation was not united by the ethos of its creeds. Yet, after his death, the preacher’s people prayed that it would be united by the pathos of his deeds. But in the wilderness of progress, we suddenly lost our way; and we must be forever mindful that the chair in the temple was not built from wood or leather or stone; but from the blood, sweat and tears of the denizens of this land that we so proudly call the United States of America. It is upon this chair that the image of the nation’s 16th president carved in marble now rests. It was not built perfect, and like all things, it stills stands in the eternal shadows of a perfect God.
My fellow Americans, that chair in the stone temple where the likeness of America’s 16th president sits; in the dawn light and the darkness of night, shines its luminous beacon of freedom. That chair appears to be carved from the hardness of stone — but it is made of the precious fabrics of freedom and equality. It was stitched by the ethnic threads that bind us together as: “One Nation under God, Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All.”
The heritage of our nation, although denied to many of my ancestors, preceded that solemn bearded martyr sitting in that chair of universal freedom. Its flame was lit in 1776, kindled again in 1865, and reignited on that summer day in 1963. It now serves as a beacon for the entire world to see if we listen to “the better angels of our nature”, honor our creed and strive toward “A More Perfect Union”. That flame my friends and countrymen is not the flame of one person, one race or one nation. It is perhaps “the last best hope for mankind on this earth”!