To mark the Civil War’s centennial 50 years ago, some whites donned Confederate uniforms or hoop skirts and paraded to sentimental notions of the Old South, partly in answer to the civil rights struggle exploding around them. Blacks quietly met apart to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation.
In Alabama, whites held beard-growing contests and mixed in speeches defying the federal government’s push for integration.
“It was a safe haven to get nostalgic about the past,” said Kristopher Teters, author of “A Contested Path: Commemorating the Civil War in 1960s Alabama.”
Half a century later, commemorations of the war’s 150th anniversary of the war’s start are shaping up to be multicultural and inclusive as a country takes new stock of its greatest domestic conflict.
Fought from 1861 to 1865, the Civil War pitted northern and southern states against each other over slavery in the South and other issues. During the war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves in the South free.
In planning for observances starting this year and continuing for at least two years, historians, scholars, artists and writers are reassessing the war with zeal, inviting fresh viewpoints on the reasons for the country’s harrowing slide into a conflict that dragged on for years, claiming more than 1 million lives.
Witness the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the state’s official theater, which has commissioned two plays for the 150th — one by a white female playwright from the South and one by a black male Northerner.
Geoffrey Sherman, producing artistic director at the festival, is himself an Englishman who knew little about the Civil War until he began gathering information for the two playwrights. He said both will use identical material about Montgomery in that period to produce their own take on those times.
“They’ll write their own view of that material and of those people and then we are going to produce those plays back to back,” Sherman promised.
In Virginia, more than 1,000 scholars and others have launched a series of historical conferences to scrutinize the war. Little-heard perspectives are welcome and no subject is barred. One conference scheduled for next year: “Race, Slavery and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History.”
That more thoughtful approach will distinguish the state’s commemorations from those it held 50 years ago, said House Speaker William J. Howell, the chairman of Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. A college student during the centennial observances, Howell said he recalls hearing the cannons during a re-enactment of the Battle of Manassas.
“There’s an awful lot more to the war than just that,” Howell said.
In Maryland, Bill Pencek, the director of heritage tourism, says sesquicentennial events will highlight diverse viewpoints on the war, a departure from centennial observances that mainly honored Confederate veterans. First activities will commemorate an event that helped ignite the war — John Brown’s raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry — launched from a farmhouse near Dargan, Md.
Plans in South Carolina, where the war began, call for re-enacting the bombardment of Fort Sumter and also for the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation to free local slaves when Beaufort was occupied by federal troops.
Fifty years ago, Alabama’s Legislature created the Alabama Civil War Centennial Commission to organize celebrations. That commission sidestepped the issue of slavery, Teters said, and presented a romanticized version of the Civil War that hailed Southern troops as brave souls who soldiered on outnumbered and ill-equipped.
People filled a large rodeo arena in Montgomery for a weeklong program recreating the birth of the Confederacy and Jefferson Davis’ inauguration as president there 100 years earlier. Those festivities came the same year white Southerners beat Freedom Riders for trying to desegregate buses across the region.
With the 150th anniversary, many of the activities planned will acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement.
“The focus should be more on understanding how these events made us what we are today,” Alabama State Archivist Ed Bridges said.