Hundreds of African-American men marched to the White House this past Sunday. They were not wearing hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin. They were not making the “hands up don’t shoot” gesture in honor of Michael Brown.
They were wearing blue wool trousers and greatcoats, forage caps and cavalry boots—in honor of African American soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Their aim: to correct a wrong made in 1865, when black soldiers were left out of the Grand Review, the Union Army’s victory parade.
1865? Seriously? With all the critically important racial justice causes of 2015?
“Everything about the Civil War is present tense,” author C.R. Gibbs told me. “This is not settled. Ferguson and Baltimore are just match flares on a long historical fuse.”
One need look no further than the U.S. Supreme Court docket for evidence of the Civil War in our contemporary lives. In March, the court heard a case regarding a request by the Sons of Confederate Veterans for a special Texas license plate featuring a Confederate battle flag.
In 2010, the Virginia public school system introduced a 4th grade textbook with bogus claims about thousands of loyal slaves fighting on the side of the Confederacy. The source? The Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Such disinformation is part of a broader neo-Confederate movement to deny that slavery was a major factor in the conflict—and to bury the history of African-Americans’ active role in their own emancipation.
Dr. Clarence Anthony Bush, whose great-grandfather fought in a light artillery regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), told me it’s especially critical for young people to learn this little-known history. “Some African-Americans feel a little ashamed, thinking it was Abraham Lincoln who gave them their freedom. When you know your people fought for their freedom, it changes the way we look at ourselves and what our abilities are.”
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Bush created a gospel jazz musical about black Civil War soldiers that was performed at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, DC. Nearby is a monument engraved with names of the more than 200,000 USCT members. By war’s end, they made up 10 percent of federal troops.
For years, the museum has been tracking down descendants of black Civil War soldiers, recording their stories, and organizing them for the big Grand Review 150. On the eve of the parade, they hosted a vigil in which descendants from across the country paid tribute to their ancestors. Audrea Barnes, a second cousin of First Lady Michelle Obama, spoke about one of their mutual slave ancestors, Jerry Sutton (aka Suter), who ran away from a plantation in Alabama and joined the USCT’s 55th Regiment. Through archival research, she’s learned of his struggles for military pay equity and a failed attempt to obtain a veteran’s disability pension.
While the pension program was supposed to be color-blind, Brigham Young University research confirms that African-American veterans received less than their white counterparts. In part, this was a result of a lack of necessary documentation, but bureaucrats were also less likely to believe their claims. For example, they approved 44 percent of white soldiers’ claims regarding back pain, compared to only 16 percent of such claims by black soldiers.
A century and a half after the Civil War, racial inequalities in America are still staggering. Median income for nonwhites is only 65 percent that of whites. The wealth gap is even wider, with white families’ net worth six times that of non-whites.
Jeremiah Lowery, a 29-year-old labor activist with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, told me he attended the Grand Review because “Just like the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter,’ black history matters too. They started to break down institutions of slavery 150 years ago. Today we have institutions that block people from earning a living wage and make people victims of brutality in the streets. It’s all connected.”
African-Americans led the Grand Review in 2015, but hundreds of white re-enactors also marched. “We even had people who’ve always re-enacted as Confederates put on Union uniforms today,” said African-American Civil War Museum Director (and former civil rights activist) Dr. Frank Smith.
Asked whether the event was more poignant in light of the explosion of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Smith said, “The Civil War led to the passage of the 14th Amendment, which was supposed to ensure that the federal government protected African-Americans when states didn’t. These young men don’t feel safe. And today it’s not just in the South, it’s in the North too. The fact that people are in the streets, though—that’s what gives me hope.”