Thursday, April 9th is the 150th anniversary of one of the most significant moments in American history, the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Despite this, Americans have not seen the sort of typical historiography that accompanies significant anniversaries. The 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march of 1965 attracted far more attention; of course, that occasion had a major motion picture about the events this past December and many participants in the march, including Congressman John Lewis, are still alive to help promote memories of what happened and its significance.
But a more honest appraisal of why much of America, along with its media, is choosing not to remember Appomattox is because of how raw the conflicts of 150 years ago remain, even now, and how those conflicts still dominate our politics today.
There is historical precedent for this. The centennial of the Civil War was also largely avoided and ignored, largely due to the political inconvenience that it posed for the Kennedy administration. Less than a month after the centennial of the Battle of Fort Sumter, the first two buses of Freedom Riders were attacked in Alabama. A week later, the Kennedys were forced to send federal marshals to Birmingham to defend First Baptist Church and 1,500 occupants (including Martin Luther King Jr.) from a rioting mob. President Kennedy, who had been elected with the help of southern segregationist Democrats and who counted Alabama Governor John Patterson among his earliest supporters for President, was in a bind that would plague Democrats for the next decade. The Democrats ruled the South, but their rule was based on white supremacy and the suppression of southern blacks through terrorism and illegal discrimination. Indeed, in 1964, twenty years after discrimination in party primaries was outlawed in Smith v Allwright, President Johnson would call an impromptu press conference to interrupt the broadcast of Fannie Lou Hamer's testimony to the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention, challenging the seating of Mississippi's whites only delegation. In 1965, at the centennial ceremony of the surrender at Appomattox, as Congress contemplated the Voting Rights Act, only 3,000 visitors attended.
Much has changed in the past 50 years, in America, in the South, and in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party, which had been the first home of such famous segregationists as Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, is now the party of Barack Obama. Virginia, whose centennial celebrations had included a Mercury space capsule but no mention of black Virginians, opened its sesquicentennial with statements from its commission members such as"This is a commemoration, not a celebration. There's nothing to celebrate in the deaths of between 700,000 and 1 million American people," and "Yes, we remember that roughly 30,000 Virginians died during the Civil War; but we also must not forget that that war freed 500,000 Virginia slaves." These sort of statements are, needless to say, impossible to imagine in the Virginia that closed its public schools rather than comply with Federal laws requiring integration as they planned their centennial.
Yet, as far as America has come, the battles surrounding the Civil War are still with us. Right now, there is an active campaign in this country to persuade Americans that the opposition to so-called Religious Freedom Acts in Indiana and Arkansas are a new fight, the latest campaign in an ever-expanding constellation of 'gay rights' that is attacking "traditional America" - including the First Amendment. Some, like Ross Douthat of the New York Times, want to portray the insistence on this principle is an example of how the center on these issues has changed a lot so quickly that "[p]ositions taken by, say, the president of the United States and most Democratic politicians a few short years ago are now deemed the purest atavism, [and] the definition of bigotry gets more and more elastic." (Douthat is also, by the way, still very sorry for speaking at a fundraiser last year for the Alliance Defending Freedom, one of America's most extreme anti-LGBT groups.)
What these campaigners don't want known is that this is actually one of the oldest civil rights battles in America. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 prohibited discrimination in access to inns, public conveyances, and places of amusement such as theaters - from the end of Reconstruction it was well understood that discrimination by providers of services to the general public was a key element to the denial of equality by the ruling majority against the unfavored minority. This principle was reaffirmed both in state laws such as the Unruh Civil Rights Act of 1959 in California, which was the model for similar laws in other states; in federal laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and by the Supreme Court, in decisions like Heart of Atlanta Motel Inc. v. United States and Katzenbach v. McClung. What today's activists for civil rights are fighting for is in fact the same things that civil rights activists have been fighting for over the last 140 years - that all Americans should have the right to purchase the services offered to other Americans in the free market.
Those who would stand athwart history demanding that it stop today wish and hope that their audience is ignorant of history. They believe that they can hurl accusations of appeasement at supporters of a negotiated agreement with Iran, confident that memories of Neville Chamberlain, the Munich Agreement, and the world of 1938 are sufficiently distant that they will get away with it. They believe they can claim that the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and so many others are isolated, unrelated incidents which are being made into a big deal by a rapacious media and race-baiting outsiders, confident that we will have forgotten what Ida B. Wells wrote about demonstrative lynching as a form of social control in 1892.
They think that when the bells ring across America tomorrow, many Americans will not know why.
I hope you will join me in remembering Appomattox Courthouse, remembering what it was so many fought and killed and died for, and what it is that so many Americans are still fighting for today.