Originally published onÂ AlterNet
Hundreds of African-American men marched to the White House this pastÂ Sunday. They were not wearing hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin. They were not making the âhands up donât shootâ 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 Armyâs victory parade.
1865? Seriously? With all the critically important racial justice causes of 2015?
âEverything about the Civil War is present tense,â authorÂ C.R. GibbsÂ told me. âThis is not settled. Ferguson and Baltimore are just match flares on a long historical fuse.â
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 4thÂ gradeÂ textbookÂ 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-Americansâ 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 itâs especially critical for young people to learn this little-known history. âSome African-Americans feel a little ashamed, thinking it was Abraham Lincoln who gave them their freedom. When you know your peopleÂ foughtÂ for their freedom, it changes the way we look at ourselves and what our abilities are.â
Bush created aÂ gospel jazz musicalÂ about black Civil War soldiers that was performed at theÂ African American Civil War MuseumÂ in Washington, DC. Nearby is a monument engraved with names of the more than 200,000 USCT members. By warâs 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 USCTâs 55th Regiment. Through archival research, sheâs learned of his struggles for military pay equity and a failed attempt to obtain a veteranâs disability pension.
While the pension program was supposed to be color-blind,Â Brigham Young UniversityÂ 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 soldiersâ 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 familiesâÂ net worth six timesÂ that of non-whites.
Jeremiah Lowery, a 29-year-old labor activist withÂ Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, told me he attended the Grand Review because âJust like the slogan âBlack Lives Matter,â 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. Itâs all connected.â
African-Americans led the Grand Review in 2015, but hundreds of white re-enactors also marched. âWe even had people whoâve always re-enacted as Confederates put on Union uniforms today,â 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, âThe Civil War led to the passage of the 14thÂ Amendment, which was supposed to ensure that the federal government protected African-Americans when states didnât. These young men donât feel safe. And today itâs not just in the South, itâs in the North too. The fact that people are in the streets, though — thatâs what gives me hope.â
Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, and is a co-author of the Institute’s 20th anniversary Executive Excess report, “Bailed Out, Booted, and Busted.”
This article was originally published by AlterNet.
Photo: Washington, D.C. Infantry units with fixed bayonets, May 1865. ViaÂ Wikicommons.