Recently, I submitted a blog for Grandparent's Day using an old college paper. While searching, I found another one; it too, was a "college project". This one was written in an election year (2008), and ironically, we are in another one right now. I re-read it, and decided that now might be an appropriate time to share it, especially given the tumultuous campaign season we are currently in.
It is written from the perspective of a young white girl growing up during the civil rights era of the sixties. It is not my intention to get people fighting with one another over partisan ridiculousness, but to get them thinking about true motivation apart from politics. Lay down all prideful arguments and read with an open mind and heart. Here is the paper in its entirety:
As I traveled down Peachtree Street, the sudden recollection that I was born in Piedmont hospital flooded my mind, bringing back memories of having been raised in Atlanta. So, had I gotten lost in Atlanta, my college paper on my visit to The Atlanta History Center had already been written in my head. Let me explain.
As I said, I was born in Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia in 1959. I am an original Atlanta native, born and raised; one of the few left. If you do the math, you’ll see that I was a young white girl in the sixties during the civil rights movement; therefore, my perspective may be a bit different than others. Today, we hear a lot of commentary on racial issues, especially this campaign season, however, at the museum, I was able to get a more historical view. The first stop icluded pictures and quotes from slaves and women during the Civil War Era. I see that the ideals were then, and are now, the same; hence, the title of my paper. The quote in full states:
“We are only asking for self-government and the freedom to decide our own destinies (Lee, 2004)”.
That sentiment, spoken by Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas (circa 1848-1889), has one thing in common with today's men and women – it is fully American.
Being American is about ideals, and there is no certain “look” that makes you American, as in other countries. The thing that struck me the most as I toured the Civil War Era of the museum, was that the first caption: War of Ideals. The South thought that the victory would be swift; convincing the North to leave them alone, but soon found that there would be no easy victory. Decisions had to be made.
One decision that would come up later on was whether the slave man could fight alongside his white counterparts. As the war unfolded, hard decisions were necessary. If they did not let slaves fight alongside of them, the Union might very well come up short and great losses would be recorded. But if they did, they would have to admit that they were somehow equal, and many whites would have no part in that. The slave felt the former. That thought was echoed in an anonymous quote by a slave:
“Now we are men”.
They had become “freedmen”, but did not feel that they were truly free until they could fight for the right to be truly free. This was the beginning of “social change of great proportion…this valor helped prove Lincoln’s position for emancipation (Atlanta, 2008)”. I was awestruck by all of this, and had to pause for a great while and ponder the impact of it all.
I went back to the Civil War museum three times. Each time, I sat alone to listen to the commentary. I was glad of that, as I learn best when I have nothing to distract me. I noted the evolution from ideals, to law and social change. I enjoyed the sight of wooden furniture and floors, which reminded me of homes that I grew up in, but was spellbound by the slave church. I could literally “feel” the oppression, but at the same time also felt the Spirit for which they called on. I felt as if I was standing on sacred ground. I believe that is because those people had to have an eternal perspective because, chances were, they might never see true freedom in their lifetime.
The timeline continued to the present day: Civil rights, legislation to change laws, and those seeking meaning in it all. The small rooms showing short films made it easy to get lost in the era. It was hard to keep emotions intact throughout. Afterwards, I walked on the outside of the museum and looked at the old farmhouse and surrounding grounds areas. Finally, it was time to go.
As I said before, I was lost in the emotion of the trip. And it was easy since I got there late and was able to tour by myself (which left me alone with my thoughts). With those thoughts on my mind, stepping outside was an experience in itself.
As I stepped outside, I noticed its beauty. I noticed that people, who, on cardboard pictures inside had been divided from one another, were, on the outside, walking together and smiling at each other. And when I observed the contrast, I realized how far we had come.
As I drove down the street, I turned on the radio, and as if divine intervention was trying to drive home the message, the 60’s Beatle’s song “Let it Be” came on, followed by “People Get Ready” by The Impressions, taking me back to my own childhood in Atlanta. I then looked up, and from behind a restaurant sign was a huge American flag waving in the wind, and suddenly the meaning began to materialize in my thoughts. Just as they were seeking meaning in the civil war, and later, through civil rights, today we still do the same. It is an American ideal to seek meaning in our lives. Our lives, the struggles, good and bad have made us what we are today.
I was raised by ordinary people (factory workers, bookkeeper, welders, and mechanics) who struggled to carve a life out with what they had. Others have had struggles that I never had to experience, but it should be noted that as a young girl growing up during a time of great social change, I suffered too. I felt helpless to help those who endured oppression and persecution; my heart broke for them. Those experiences made me want to grow up to be a different person than I had seen in others.
That evening, I was listening to talk radio, and a woman called in to comment on the current election. She said that she was a black woman, but would not be voting for a man based on the color of his skin. When asked why, she quoted from the civil war era, ironically, and I believe prophetically, the quote that I had heard earlier in the day:
“We are only asking for self-government and the freedom to decide our own destinies.”
She said that we are all Americans, and our ideals and beliefs are what hold us together. She was grateful to be an American and saw the election through color blind eyes; she was voting her ideals. That’s what I believe was the original intent of our nation.
I was born in Atlanta, in the middle of great change. Although I was born in a physical building, my heart was already a part of the historical south; I simply had to grow into it. I hope that because of what others have seen and experienced, and what I have seen and experienced, we can all come together as, “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” as our ideal. Then together, we can pass them along to the next generation, hopefully less tarnished than we inherited them.
Atlanta History Center field trip (6 September, 2008).
Lee, J.E., Chepesuik R., (2004). South Carolina in the Civil War: The Confederate Experience in Letters and Diaries. Chapter thirteen, Not just a man’s war (page 129). McFarland Press.