of Radical Reconstruction, in which the Civil War was understood principally as a war for the destruction of slavery and the liberation of African Americans to achieve full citizenship.
The second was the reconciliationist vision, ostensibly less political, which focused on honoring the dead on both sides, respecting their sacrifice, and the reunion of the country.
The third was the white supremacist vision, which was either openly pro-Confederate or at least despising of Reconstruction as “Black rule” in the South.
Over the late 1800s and the early 1900s, in the context of Jim Crow and the complete subordination of Black political participation, the second and third visions largely combined. The emancipationist version of the Civil War, and the heroic participation of African Americans in their own liberation, was erased from popular culture, the history books and official commemoration.
In 1877, the Northern capitalist establishment decisively turned their backs on Reconstruction, striking a deal with the old slavocracy to return the South to white supremacist rule in exchange for the South’s acceptance of capitalist expansion. This political and economic deal was reflected in how the war was commemorated. Just as the reunion of the Northern and Southern ruling classes was based on the elimination of Black political participation, the way the Civil War became officially remembered—through the invention of Memorial Day—was based on the elimination of the Black veteran and the liberated slave.
As Blight explains, “With time, in the North, the war’s two great results—black freedom and the preservation of the Union—were rarely accorded equal space. In the South, a uniquely Confederate version of the war’s meaning, rooted in resistance to Reconstruction, coalesced around Memorial Day practice.” (“Race and Reunion,” p. 65)
The Civil War Whitewashed
In the statues, anniversary parades and popular magazines, the Civil War was portrayed as an all-white affair, a tragic conflict between brothers. To the extent the role of slavery was allowed in these remembrances, Lincoln was typically portrayed as the beneficent liberator standing above the kneeling slave.
The mere image of the fighting Black soldier pierced through this particular “memory,” which in reality was a collective and forced “forgetting” of the real past. Portraying the rebellious slave or Black soldier would unmask the Civil War as a life-and-death struggle against slavery, a true social revolution, and a reminder of the political promises that had been betrayed.
While African Americans and white radicals continued to uphold the emancipationist remembrance of the Civil War during the following decades—as exemplified by W.E.B. DuBois’ landmark “Black Reconstruction”—this interpretation was effectively silenced in the “respectable” circles of academia, mainstream politics and popular culture. The white supremacist and reconciliationist retelling of the war and Reconstruction was only overthrown in official academic circles in the 1950s and 1960s as the Civil Rights movement shook the country to its core, and more African Americans fought their way into the country’s universities.
While historians have gone a long way to expose the white supremacist history of the Civil War and uncover its revolutionary content, the spirit of the first Decoration Day—the struggle for Black liberation and the fight against racism—has unfortunately been whitewashed from the modern Memorial Day.
So let’s use Memorial Day weekend to honor the fallen fighters for justice worldwide, to speak plainly about this country’s historic crimes, and rededicate ourselves to take on those of the present.
This article originally appeared in LiberationNews.org.