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President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and Dr, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial one century later were defining moments in the history of civil rights in the United States.
I can’t easily explain it, but the news coverage this past week marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg left me with a feeling of disquiet.
It wasn’t as though this seminal Union victory, which marked a turning point in the Civil War, had been ignored. Generally, the mainstream media gave more than passing mention to the anniversary. There have been good reviews for a new book on the subject — “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion,” by Allen C. Guelzo, a distinguished Lincoln scholar who teaches at Gettysburg College.
I look forward to reading it because I have developed a special interest in the Gettysburg story. As a foreign correspondent virtually all of my attention had focused on the Cold War and the conflicts of the Middle East, which were products of the two World Wars of the 20th century. However, shortly after my retirement, I was invited by the then chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Dennis Reimer, to join him and his senior staff and a few old war correspondents for a weekend conference at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
Our discussions about the military and the media were of little consequence. What was significant was a day-long field trip our group of about a dozen made to the nearby battlefields of Gettysburg.
Our guides were the commandant of the War College and its chief historian. After visiting the sites and hearing the stories of the first two days of the battle, we walked side by side onto the once blood-drenched field of Gen. George Pickett’s infamous charge on the climactic third day.
For an hour we strode up the long grade as our guides shouted out from either end of our line, describing what would have been happening at that moment on that third day of July in 1863. One could easily imagine the sights, sounds and smells of thousands of soldiers being killed and maimed on this very ground.
Of all the world’s famous historical sites I have been privileged to visit, this moved me the most. It also inspired me to learn much more about this battle and this war.
Over the ensuing years of reading and research, I came to appreciate that you cannot truly understand this country until you recognize just how profound the impact of the Civil War has been on the American psyche. How else to explain that from the Confederate surrender at Appomattox to this very day, many Americans, in their heart of hearts, do not accept the outcome of that war.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishes slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment requires states to provide equal protection under the law to all of their citizens. The Fifteenth Amendment bans race-based voting qualifications. These are the Civil War Reconstruction amendments meant to secure the rights of former slaves.
But then came a notorious political deal to break the deadlock of the 1876 presidential election. Republican candidate Rutherford Hayes became president by obtaining electoral votes from three Southern states in return for a promise that the occupying Union Army in those states would be pulled out.
Not only was that the end of Reconstruction. It marked the beginning of the Jim Crow era, when Southern and border states mandated “separate but equal” status for African-Americans. At the same time black voting rights were negated by a web of insidious laws and regulations that throughout the South effectively blocked black participation in the political process. Segregation would prevail for the next 90 years.
There was virtually no improvement in civil rights for black Americans until after World War II. In 1947 Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. In 1948 President Harry Truman signed an executive order to desegregate the U.S. military (which took another six years). In 1954 in a unanimous decision the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional. That gave the legal footing for the civil rights protests of the late ’50s and early ’60s.
But it wasn’t until 1964 and 1965 when the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed, that the promise of the Civil War constitutional amendments was finally realized. For this we owe an enormous debt to Martin Luther King and the thousands of brave black and white people willing to risk everything to march with him — and to President Lyndon Johnson who had to use all of his persuasive skills on his fellow Southerners to ultimately get both laws passed.
Which brings me back to my unease about coverage of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. As important as this battle was, it still cannot be seen as “mission accomplished.” Of course, much has changed in America. An African-American is now president — which without the victory in Gettysburg would never have happened.
But race remains ingrained in American politics, as evidenced by just last year’s election when new state and local laws to suppress the minority vote kept being enacted. Meanwhile, there have been more threats to Barack Obama’s life than any previous president. The opposition to him is offered as ideological, but the level of vituperation seems much more visceral than political.
Yet frankly, it is not the Obama haters I worry about so much as I do the current Supreme Court. The latest 5-4 decision to strip crucial parts from the 1965 Voting Rights Act seriously weakens the one law that finally brought the aims of the Civil War to fruition — albeit 100 years after the fact. Yet now, Congress must rewrite the key enforcement clause of the Voting Rights Act, something that looks virtually impossible given the dysfunctional make-up of the current Congress and its likely successors in the foreseeable future.
That then, would seem to guarantee that for minorities, voting is going to become more difficult again, which raises the question for this court, why in God’s name would you want to do that?
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.