Cold War civil rights at Gettysburg
06 November 2013 – Jill Titus
In July 1963, tens of thousands of visitors flocked to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle widely touted as the turning point of the American Civil War. Despite the profusion of toy souvenirs and 19th-century garb, the fact that this anniversary coincided with heightened street confrontation over civil rights, increased international condemnation of racial injustices in the US, and shifts in Cold War politics did not go unnoticed. Political leaders, heritage enthusiasts, and members of the general public all offered interpretations of the battle that advanced their own positions on the contemporary issues confronting the nation.
Some of these interpretations have proven more lasting than others, for they are inscribed in stone. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the vast majority of monuments – regimental, state, and individual – erected on the Gettysburg battlefield marked key moments in the Union defense. In the mid-20th century, Confederate heritage groups and southern state governments began to claim space of their own on the field. Of the 11 southern state monuments on the battlefield today, four were erected during the Civil War Centennial, and two – Florida and South Carolina – were dedicated during the actual100th anniversary commemoration.
Unveiled within a day of each other, these two monuments and the dedication ceremonies that marked their installation offered diametrically opposed interpretations of the supposed “lessons” the battle offered Cold War Americans. Throughout the summer of 1963, the horrific images coming out of Birmingham, Alabama, had been a source of shock and embarrassment to many whites who had previously paid little attention to civil rights. These images had also garnered opprobrium around the globe. Three weeks prior to the battle anniversary, President John F. Kennedy had gone on national television to announce his intent to introduce a comprehensive civil rights bill into Congress. The threat of federal legislative action further inflamed segregationist anger while many black activists wondered whether the bill would provide anything more than yet another unfulfilled promise. Some white Americans, however, embraced the idea, either out of genuine enthusiasm for justice or with a sense of relief that legislative action might spare the nation additional criticism from abroad.
The July 2 dedication of the monument to the South Carolina troops who fought at Gettysburg took a defiant, anti-federal tone, which is unsurprising given the monument’s inscription:
That Men of Honor Might Forever Know the Responsibilities of Freedom, Dedicated South Carolinians Stood and Were Counted for Their Heritage and Convictions. Abiding Faith in the Sacredness of States Rights Provided Their Creed Here. Many Earned Eternal Glory.
The speakers, Alabama governor George Wallace (fresh from his infamous stand in the schoolhouse door) and Congressman John May, invoked states’ rights as the best defense against Communism and creeping federal encroachment upon individual liberties, namely, although left unstated, the liberty to engage in racial discrimination.
Neither man mentioned the events in South Carolina that summer that gave specific meaning to the phrase “states’ rights,” such as an anti-integration march at the statehouse, a decision to close all state parks in response to a federal court order mandating integration, the beginning of the Orangeburg, South Carolina, Freedom Movement, and a retaliatory bombing aimed at intimidating a black student who successfully sued for admission to the University of South Carolina. But both speakers wielded states’ rights as a rhetorical weapon. Congressman May explicitly linked the Confederate cause to an honorable defense of the Constitution, a constitution that he intimated was currently being “misunderstood, misconstrued, and misinterpreted” for selfish gain.
On the following day, the dedication of the Florida monument interpreted the legacy of the battle quite differently. The inscription on this monument echoed the themes of courage and devotion to ideals (perhaps deliberately left undefined) but added a Cold War twist, proclaiming:
They Fought With Courage and Devotion for the Ideals In Which They Believed, By Their Noble Example of Bravery and Endurance They Enable Us to Meet With Confidence any Sacrifice Which Confronts Us As Americans.
Though the invocation and benediction incorporated Lost Cause themes, the dedication address offered by Florida Congressman Sam Gibbons drew upon the experiences of Florida troops at Gettysburg to argue for a vision of civil rights reform profoundly shaped by foreign policy imperatives. Condemning both the use of the “snarling police dog” and opportunists determined to “pit one race against each other” as damaging the American image abroad, Gibbons called on his countrymen not to squander the sacrifice made by their ancestors at Gettysburg. “The effects of the battle that we mark now with this ceremony were largely confined to this country,” he argued, “but such is not the case today; for now America’s racial conflicts have immediate world-wide significance. We cannot hope to win men’s minds in the battle with Communism if America becomes a land in which freedom, equality and opportunity are reserved only for the white man.”
Unfortunately, neither the political purposes of these monuments nor the malleability of the historical narrative their dedication ceremonies reveal are particularly visible to contemporary visitors to the battlefield, who lack the contextual information necessary to question – or even comprehend – the sentiments expressed in their inscriptions. Given the National Park Service commitment to preserving the battlefield as a commemorative landscape, what might be some possible strategies for unmasking the interpretive messages embedded in these monuments?
Certainly, we can interrogate these spaces with our students, providing them with the primary sources (dedication speeches, contemporary newspaper articles, etc.) and the interpretive framework necessary to contextualize the monuments. A few well-placed interpretive waysides in front of the most visible of these granite columns might be helpful, as well as a “Behind the Monuments” app for the Auto Tour or a series of podcasts accessible from the auto tour loop. Another possibility – potentially more contentious than the others – could be to develop “countermonument” installations challenging the perceived authority of the Centennial monuments, such as an evening slideshow of images of civil rights protests in South Carolina projected across the backdrop of the monument or a juxtaposition of Soviet anti-US propaganda with video footage of Kennedy’s speech to the nation in the wake of Birmingham in the space in front of the Florida monument. The challenge, of course, is that most of these strategies could be seen as additional clutter on an already highly memorialized landscape and as distractions from the goal of providing visitors a sense of the 1863 scene. Yet what is the price of continuing to allow these monuments to stand unmediated, masquerading as reliable sources of information about the battle instead of testaments to the highly politicized ways subsequent generations have made meaning of the events of July 1863?
~ Jill Ogline Titus is Associate Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.