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What Wasn’t Surrendered at Appomattox

Today we observe the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. For northerners it meant jubilation. For southern whites, dejection and fear. For the newly emancipated, anticipation. Everywhere there was mourning, and a sense of uncertainty, and perhaps more than anything else, enormous relief. It was over. Of course within a week Lincoln was assassinated, altering the political and psychological climate dramatically. Sorting out what was gained, and lost, and perhaps most of all what was left unfinished has occupied scholars for decades.

The magnitude of destruction and death in the Civil War bears reflection this week as does the momentous ending of slavery as a legal institution in the United States. Resistance to the abolition of slavery and to legal emancipation was formally surrendered on April 9, 1865. We must not forget the significance of this nor the sacrifice required to achieve it by northern abolitionists and soldiers, black and white, and by the resistance of the enslaved themselves during and prior to the War. But we must also remember that much was not surrendered at Appomattox.

Racism was not surrendered at Appomattox. White privilege was not surrendered. And it is yet to be surrendered. We see it in the vast economic disparities which fall along lines of color. We see it in the unjust distribution of resources to our public schools that privilege predominantly white communities and punish those that are not. We see it in the Court’s willingness to eviscerate voting rights protections in order to advance the political fortunes of those who rely primarily on white votes for their success. We see it in the ugly hatred and rage heaped upon Barack Obama, a reaction unlike anything we’ve seen for other presidents no matter how polarizing they may have been politically. We see it in the emails posted by Ferguson officials and in the dominant color of our prison population. We see it in arrest statistics. We see it in the hostility to Hispanics fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. We see it in residential segregation, no longer enforced by violence or by restrictive codes but now by powerful economic forces. We see it in those who resolutely refuse to see it, choosing instead to assign disparities solely to merit and good fortune.

General Grant famously allowed Lee’s army to return home with their weapons, their horses, and their mules; in so doing he implicitly asked his own soldiers to surrender their vengeance in order to allow the enemy to begin reconstructing their lives. Lincoln, weeks before, had asked the country to surrender its malice in order to bind up the nation’s wounds. No one was asked to surrender his racism, or turn over her white privilege. Few were willing to see beyond the evils of slavery and the goal of abolition to the deeper illness afflicting Americans. That has ensured that the nation’s wounds would continue to fester, and that the union for which so many fought would remain as much a vision as it is a reality.

To make the claim that the Civil War hasn’t ended is not to offer a nod to the re-enactors who rehearse the bloody battles or to those who arrogantly claim the right and the duty to display the Confederate flag. It is to recognize that the fundamental toxin at the center of that violent struggle and that has victimized red, brown, yellow, and black Americans ever since still flows through our cultural, social, political and, yes, at times even our theological veins. One hundred and fifty years after Appomattox there remains much we still need to surrender.

History offers heroic tales of soldiers who held out to the last, refusing to surrender. This is not one of those stories. Our refusal to surrender testifies to fear and arrogance, not to bravery. The rhetoric of the movements for racial justice often uses the martial language of continuing the fight, of marching on. Let’s not forget, however, that for war’s evils to end, surrender has to take place. The violence that persists in so many forms in this country will not simply come as the result of those who pursue the struggle. It will come from surrender as well.

John H. Thomas
April 9, 2015 

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