Next year, 2015, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act into law. It’s also the sesquicentennial of the end of the American Civil War. I was spurred to consider this a few weeks ago during a Twitter conversation with Merlin Chowkwanyun, when he mentioned how many events were up for commemoration next year. One wonders how, or if, the American government (not to mention the American people) will commemorate such events. The memory of both of these, after all, are important elements of the modern American story—the triumph over slavery and session in one, the victory over segregation and discrimination on the other. As always, the ways in which we remember these events will say a great deal about the American memory of the past, and present day concerns about race, citizenship, and the state.
For me, at least, there’s been surprisingly little in the way of massive, public celebrations of the American Civil War. No speeches by the president at Antietam in 2012 or Gettysburg in 2013. Not, to my knowledge, have there been any moments of remembrance at Fort Sumter, For Wagner, or Fort Pillow. About the only event I can recall related to the Civil War was the “Secession Ball” held in Charleston in 2010—and that only was due to the controversy involved. David Blight noted the problems faced by organizers of the Centennial celebrations of the Civil War in the 1960s in his book, American Oracle. Considering that a good chunk of those issues stemmed from the concurrent battles over civil rights, it is no wonder there’s not as many large events devoted to the end of the Civil War today. No more than any other event, the American Civil War—its causes, its devastation, and so on—still has the potential the stir the passions of millions of Americans.
However, there has been significant remembrance of the Civil Rights Movement. Already we’ve seen the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. I’ve written before about different Marches on Washington—most notably, the contrasts between the 50th anniversary versus the 20th anniversary of 1983, which became a rally for many liberal and left activists in the 1980s—but other events have been commemorated too. A summit was held at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library earlier this year to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. And the Freedom Riders have also held events to mark their journey south in the early 1960s.
One wonders how we’ll commemorate the Voting Rights Act next year. Recent years have seen fierce debates about voting rights in various states, with Voter ID laws and the recent Supreme Court decision sparking the ire of those who believe that the VRA is under attack as never before. And that’s before considering other events from 1965 that might deserve remembering—the first American troops going to South Vietnam and the Watts Riots occurring merely days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act being just the most notable examples. All of these commemorations have something in common—they all speak to present day debates.
For example, how would one remember the start of America’s combat escalation in Vietnam (and yes, there were advisers there long before combat troops, so that shouldn’t be forgotten)? Or will we? Any commemoration of that would, inevitably, be tied to current day concerns about President Obama’s use of force overseas, and questions of his following the War Powers Act. For that matter, considerations of the legacy of the Watts riot—which is already tricky enough as it is—will inevitably become linked to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. I worry that the actions by the police there are being forgotten even as I write this, pushed back to the recesses of mainstream public discourse. With the recent death of Michael Katz, considering the legacies of the War on Poverty has become even more critical—as this event, already scheduled before his death, reminds us.
What and how we commemorate events is an important reflection of how most of the public interprets and learns history. I’m intrigued to see what’s done about events like Selma to Montgomery, Watts, and Vietnam. Or if anything will be done for all those events at all. Intellectual historians should take particular note—how we remember these events can be an indication of a larger national mood. Just take stock of the many books written on Civil War commemoration, and how those argued for race being at the center of such commemorations.
History and memory. No historian can live—and work—without the both of them.