12/01/2010 06:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What To Do About the Civil War?

The Teaching Tolerance team had a confab earlier this week to plan ahead. Looking at a 2011 calendar, Sean Price, Teaching Tolerance's managing editor, reminded me that the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War was fast approaching. Did we want to do something?

My first response? Frankly, no. As a former U.S. history teacher, I suspected that the next four years will present an unending opportunity mainly for military history buffs to strut their stuff. We would, I suggested to Sean, better serve teachers by focusing on the themes that spoke to racial justice.

But today, when I picked up The New York Times my eyes fell on "Celebrating Secession Without the Slaves," and I learned that plans are well underway for an amnesiac's commemoration of the great conflict. In Charleston, S.C., the first state to secede, "events include a 'secession ball' ... ("a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink," says the invitation)." Montgomery, Ala., home of Teaching Tolerance, Rosa Parks and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, plans a parade and reenactment of Jefferson Davis' swearing in as president of the Confederate States of America.

The reality of slavery isn't simply missing from the story -- it's actively being denied. In Georgia, the Sons of Confederate Veterans has gone all Greta Garbo with billboards proclaiming that, "'All we wanted was to be left alone to govern ourselves.'"

To claim that secession arose solely from a desire to be "left alone to govern ourselves" reveals how current political ideology -- specifically from those who think our problems arise from too much government -- can cause people to twist history and turn it on its end.

There's no way one can honestly remove slavery -- and its fundamental denial of the most basic human freedom -- as a primary reason for secession.

Before your students buy this bunk, have them examine the evidence that comes straight from the very first sentences in the Declarations of Causes issued by three of the seceding states:

  • "The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last 10 years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery."
  • In the momentous step which our State [Mississippi] has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course. Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery -- the greatest material interest of the world.
  • [Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery -- the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits -- a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.

Or, have them read the words of Alexander Stephens, the new vice president of the Confederacy, as he justified secession: "The proper status of the negro... was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution," he said in his famous "Cornerstone Speech." He went on to extol the new government in the South, "its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests," he said, "upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition."

But all they wanted was to be left alone -- to oppress other human beings.

So, warning to teachers: We have four years ahead in which our students will be bombarded by lies, omissions and wishful thinking about the Civil War. Our job is to tell them the truth.