Recently, Mississippi declared April Confederate Heritage month. Alternatively, Brian Beutler, senior editor at “The New Republic,” proposed April should feature a day celebrating the defeat of the Confederate States of America (CSA). Neither of those are good holidays. Instead, we should celebrate Reconstruction Amendment Day, in remembrance of our country’s huge step forward in civil rights.
Phil Bryant, governor of Mississippi, proclaimed the Confederate Heritage month on the Mississippi Sons of Confederate Veterans website, not the governor’s site. He chose April because it is when the Confederate states began and ended. The month allows “all Americans to reflect upon our nation’s pasts, to gain insight from our mistakes and successes, and to come to a full understanding that the lessons learned yesterday and today will carry us through tomorrow.” His predecessors have made similar proclamations.
Bryant’s proclamation came as the legislature went through 19 bills addressing the state flag, which is the only flag to still feature a Confederate battle flag emblem. Because of legislative inaction, the flag will remain the same, which has caused controversy. Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and Texas also celebrate Confederate Heritage, or History, month. Virginia has previously celebrated such a month, but controversy during its last attempt, in 2010, has prevented further celebrations.
Last year, Brian Beutler, a senior editor at “The New Republic,” proposed that April 9, the defeat of the Confederacy, should be celebrated as New Birth of Freedom Day. President Obama’s remarks at the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches prompted this idea. Obama’s challenge to the popular view of American exceptionalism (the idea that America is inherently different from the rest of the world and meant to transform the world) made Beutler believe his proposed holiday would prompt re-evaluations of America’s history.
New Birth of Freedom Day would celebrate the Union’s victory and abolition of slavery as “exemplars of American improvement and renewal, even if many Unionists weren’t moral heroes.” He also proposed that the federal government should change names of military bases from Confederate figures and eliminate monuments to the Confederate States of America from its National Registry of Historic Places, and refuse to pay for their upkeep.
Beutler’s proposal was not met with great success. Rick Moran, the Chicago editor for PJ News, said the proposal was “insulting and derogatory toward the South.” Moran believed Beutler did not fully understand the South and its history when he made the proposition. Reactions on his and other blogs suggest that many Southerners feel similarly to Moran.
These two proposed celebrations divide Americans. For those who take pride in the Confederacy, Heritage Month celebrates their ancestors and the South’s independence. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, one of the more visible supporters of Heritage Month, believe “the preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.” Implementing Beutler’s idea would further anger those who believe the South’s image has been tarnished, and remove any chance for discussion over the issue of the Confederacy.
Others take offense at celebrations of the Confederacy. Several of the proclamations and supporters of the Confederacy do not mention slavery, instead focusing more on states’ rights. Some believe this is revisionist history at work. While some do realize the importance of having regional pride, or ancestral pride, they find that the symbols, like the flag, have been associated with hatred. Getting these people to support a New Birth of Freedom day might be possible.
The difference of opinions on the Confederacy traces back to how one interprets the impetus for the CSA and relationships within the CSA. Several interpretations of the CSA exist, usually depending on whether one focuses more on states’ rights or slavery. Personal relationships to the CSA also come into account, as seen in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others with family ties. These people may have a different view than someone whose family ties trace back to the other side of the line. Consequently, coming to an agreement over what the CSA stood for becomes difficult.
With such a divisive issue, promoting either of these holidays results in some group finding offense. The resulting argument can lead to further separation as people become entrenched in their views, unwilling to accommodate facts that differ from their perspective. Instead of arguing over whether the defeat or the heritage of the Confederacy should be favored, which goes back to how one views the CSA, we should create Reconstruction Amendment Day.
The Reconstruction Amendments — the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments — outlawed slavery, changed the definition of citizenship, and granted voting to all men, regardless of color. These amendments were not all passed at the same time, and did not all lead to rapid change. For example, women did not receive the right to vote until the Nineteenth amendment, sixty years later.
But Americans should celebrate the spirit of these bills. They marked a huge step forward; a country built on slavery outlawed it, and then allowed those new (male) citizens to vote. They followed the spirit of the Constitution in allowing more and more Americans to vote.
Celebrating the Reconstruction Amendments would involve discussions on voting as it currently stands. Voter ID-laws across various states have incurred charges of discriminating against certain groups in order to boost one ideology. Recent research by the University of California, San Diego, shows voter identification laws “have a differentially negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks, and mixed-race Americans in primaries and general elections.” These laws skew democracy in favor of the political right, more supported by white Americans. In celebrating this proposed holiday, citizens and legislature would be forced to re-examine how our current system is treating its citizens. Of course, this day could easily turn into a self-congratulatory fest, with people patting themselves on the back. Hopefully, advocates and those affected by these laws could direct our attention to the current problem.
Additionally, this day would cause reflection on the relationship between former CSA states and the rest of the US. The popularity of CSA-related materials, whether that be flags or heritage days, shows the South still finds that era vitally important. Instead of ignoring that relationship, Americans should revisit their history, and start a discussion on why it’s still so important to some yet offensive to others.
Such a day could be celebrated on the ratification day of the fifteenth amendment: February 3. While this might not be the only solution to our current struggle over the perception of the Confederacy, it would hopefully allow for advocates to prompt discussion on another important topic: current equality and voting rights of Americans. If America wants to continue to be representative of its citizens, this discussion needs to occur more often.