Race in America: 1860 and 1960

King

Next week Martin Luther King Jr. biographer Taylor Branch will be at Messiah College to deliver our annual American Democracy Lecture. (Admission is free, but you need to pick up a ticket at the Messiah College box office).  I teach my Civil War class on the evening of the lecture.  We are planning to meet for the first hour of class and then walk over to the hall.  I had been thinking about some different ways of helping my students make the jump from the 1850s/1860s to the 1950s/1960s when I ran across this piece by Civil War historian James McPherson at the Oxford University Press blog.

Here is a taste:

The civil rights movement eclipsed the centennial observations during the first half of the 1960s. Those were the years of sit-ins and freedom rides in the South, of Southern political leaders vowing what they called “massive resistance” to national laws and court decisions, of federal marshals and troops trying to protect civil rights demonstrators, of conflict and violence, of the March on Washington in August 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial and began his “I have a dream” speech with the words “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been scarred in the flame of withering injustice.” These were also the years of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which derived their constitutional bases from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments adopted a century earlier. The creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau by the federal government in 1865, to aid the transition of four million former slaves to freedom, was the first large-scale intervention by the government in the field of social welfare.

These parallels between the 1960s and 1860s, and the roots of events in my own time in events of exactly a century earlier, propelled me to become a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction. I became convinced that I could not fully understand the issues of my own time unless I learned about their roots in the era of the Civil War: slavery and its abolition; the conflict between North and South; the struggle between state sovereignty and the federal government; the role of government in social change and resistance to both government and social change. Those issues are as salient and controversial today as they were in the 1960s, not to mention the 1860s.

Read the entire piece here.

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