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Doing Better: Civil War-era history crucial to understanding modern NC

We focus many of our columns on what it will take for North Carolina to build a bridge into the future.

It’s also important to remember how we got to where we are now – and the arrival this April of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War is the perfect time to reflect on the powerful links between yesterday and today. The N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, in collaboration with historians and communities across the state, launched a sesquicentennial celebration in 2011 that culminates this spring with significant events statewide.

A symposium co-hosted by UNC Wilmington on Feb. 27-28 will explore the sacrifices and legacies of the war, which stretched from 1861 to 1865. In March, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bentonville, the largest land battle ever fought in North Carolina, will be commemorated. And Durham’s Bennett Place, where the largest surrender of the Civil War occurred, will offer a week of educational activities in April, including a reenactment of Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender of 89,000 troops to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. Meanwhile, the Department of Cultural Resources has compiled a fascinating written narrative, “North Carolina’s Civil War Story,” which starts in the 1830s and runs well into the 1870s. It’s available free at www.civilwarexperience.ncdcr.gov.

Why invest your time your time learning about a war that ended when Abraham Lincoln was still president?

“Understanding what happened before now gives you knowledge of context and causation and helps you more fully understand the present,” says Richard Starnes, associate professor of history and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Western Carolina University. And present-day North Carolina cannot be understood apart from the Civil War and its titanic impact on topics we regularly explore in this column, including civil rights, politics, education and industry.

Prolonged opposition

The war concluded with the emancipation of 3.5 million slaves in the Confederacy, an event that “fundamentally reshaped Southern society in ways we’re still coming to grips with,” says Starnes, who serves on the academic advisory board for the state’s sesquicentennial commemoration. From 1865 until the 1890s, African-Americans in North Carolina saw their civic rights and economic opportunities expand immensely, with the state’s 2nd Congressional district sending a black representative to Washington for 25 years. Prolonged opposition by conservative whites, fueled by the Ku Klux Klan, erased those gains by 1900, forcing blacks to fight anew for rights that would take another 60-plus years to reclaim.

When North Carolina’s legislature approved a sweeping voter ID law in 2013, Gov. Pat McCrory called it “a common-sense idea” that could prevent fraud. It could also be viewed, though, as a dangerous idea for the voting rights of minorities with a very real history of losing them. Indeed, a study last year by the independent U.S. Government Accountability Office found that voter ID laws have a greater impact on black voters than other racial groups – and in North Carolina those laws helped spark a massive wave of protests that can only be fully understood through the lens of Civil War-era history.

Then there’s the matter of our state’s pipeline of political talent. A national survey of high school and college students conducted during the 2012 presidential election found that only 11 percent of respondents thought they might one day run for political office. Their lack of enthusiasm had a lot to do with their negative perceptions of our political system, and its incivility, excessive partisanship and overall ineffectiveness.

Staying involved

These students might take heart, or at least gain valuable perspective, by studying North Carolina’s Reconstruction era immediately following the Civil War. With the KKK terrorizing blacks and their supporters in the late 1860s, N.C. Governor William Woods Holden sent state troops into Alamance and Caswell counties to restore order. Conservatives later got their revenge by impeaching Holden for illegally declaring martial law – making him the first governor in the U.S. to be impeached and removed from office and accelerating the decline of blacks’ newly won rights.

“People think Fox and MSNBC are poisoning American politics,” Starnes says. “They should read North Carolina newspapers from the 1870s.”

The lesson: Politics in this state have rarely been pretty, but critical causes – including civil rights – have eventually prevailed when enough people got involved on their behalf. We can also lose ground if we stay on the sidelines. It’s no different today. But to truly understand that and to realize our potential as a state, it helps to remember important lessons from our past.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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