Manassas 1961 – Richmond 2011
By: Robert L. Withers
July 17, 2011
This coming week will be the 150th anniversary of the first major engagement of the American Civil War; the North terms it The First Battle of Bull Run, the South styles it First Manassas. There will be commemorations, reenactments, and perhaps speeches. I suppose much of it will be celebratory, nostalgic, with an air of veneration on the part of some and curiosity on the part of others.
In 1961 there was a commemoration and reenactment on the 100th anniversary of the battle; I was there as an eleven-year old boy with my mother and two brothers. I’ve returned to Manassas, VA countless times since 1961; for on that day in 1961 I saw something that I’d never seen before and having seen it, I’ve not forgotten it.
Among the things I recall about that day in 1961 are the reenactors – quite a spectacle for a young boy interested in military history; the heat – it was blistering hot that day, if you talk to anyone who was there he or she will recall the heat; being with my Mom and brothers; Manassas being a country town with, as I recall, some dirt roads; a souvenir we purchased which had nothing to do directly with the Civil War – it was a coin bearing the image of the USS Constellation, made from metal from the ship and sold to raise funds for its restoration (amazing what the young mind retains); and then there was the thing I’d never seen before.
Growing up in Maryland, a border state during the Civil War; living in proximity to numerous Civil War battlefields as well as the Smithsonian Museum of American History; passing by historical Civil War markers on drives in Maryland and Virginia; having a mother who was both a teacher and a history lover; it was natural for me to take a lively interest in the Civil War. My mother was from Illinois, The Land of Lincoln, and she was proud of it. She was an idealist and an egalitarian. My father, who didn’t care two hoots about history, came from old Virginia stock, but he placed no value on that, he didn’t care about such things.
I have often returned to that 1961 day in Manassas; it has been part of my life. It has, indeed, informed my life – for on that day in 1961 for the first time in my life I saw a sign that read, Whites Only. I can see that sign today as if it were fifty years ago, Whites Only. It was taped to the plate-glass entrance door to a store, it was written on white paper, it was hand-lettered, and it read Whites Only. A person wrote those words to exclude other people. Whether it was a man or a woman, whoever it was, actually wrote those words, Whites Only. A human being got the white paper, got the pen or marker, got the tape, and made that sign and put it up to send a message that only White people could come into that establishment. I had never seen such a sign before.
Now I don’t want to pretend for one minute that I grew up in an integrated society in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. Our schools were integrated but our lives were not. Our businesses were integrated but our lives were not. Our street cars and buses were integrated but our lives were not. As a high-school student living in Washington, D.C. later in the 60’s I will say that, upon reflection, my life was integrated. While my perception of the broader world was confined to my little world, that little world of a high-school student spanned race and economic class; but of course I didn’t appreciate the realities that my Asian and Black friends no doubt encountered in facets of their lives to which I was not privy.
Whites Only. One hundred years after a war that was to have ended slavery I read a sign that said, Whites Only. There are many different forms of slavery; there are myriad forms of oppression.
If you are White and venture into this arena of discussion you often do so at the peril of being misunderstood, immediately labeled as a “this” or a “that” radical by other White folk. I’ve often thought about writing about this and I’ve often thought of bringing the subject up in conversation, but I generally only do so with those who are willing to thoughtfully and painfully pursue the logical course of reasoning.
If a White person has a Southern heritage and had an ancestor who fought for the South then often any discussion of the inhumanity of slavery and the oppression of Blacks after the war is seen as an attack on the ancestor. Don’t talk about lynching, don’t talk about race riots (which occurred in both the South and the North), don’t talk about Jim Crow, and don’t talk about the raw nonviolent courage of Civil Rights leaders and protestors of the 20th Century – a courage which, by the way, I consider simply amazing.
My mother had ancestors who fought for the Union. As you should expect, my father had ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. I don’t like talking about my family roots to folks outside the family because it can seem a little pretentious, and as a Christian I know that my core identity is in Jesus Christ, but rest assured that genealogically I’m as “Virginian” as Virginians can be (with, of course, the exception of my mother). My great-grandfather’s unit, the 11th Virginia Infantry, was in Picket’s Charge, he was captured on that day in Gettysburg in 1863. One of his brothers was seriously wounded at Malvern Hill and wasn’t expected to live, he made it through the war and later served as Lt. Governor of VA, US Senator, and US Counsel abroad. I am descended from the first “American” Governor of Virginia, Patrick Henry; and from two British de facto governors, John West (Acting Governor 1635-1636) and Alexander Spotswood (Lt Governor 1710 – 1722). So I’m hardly a Carpet-bagger.
There is evidence that some of the Withers family supported the North in the Civil War, notably the family of one of my great-grandfather’s uncles who aligned themselves with that portion of Virginia that became West Virginia. I respect their decision – it must have been difficult. (There were Virginians who fought for the North, such as General George Thomas, who saved the Union Army at Chickamauga; ought not Virginia to celebrate him as well as Stonewall Jackson?)
Could it be that White folks glorify the War because they don’t want to confront the reality of slavery, racism, and segregation? If I limit my discussion to battles and leaders and political heroes and scoundrels then I don’t have to talk about the heritage of my fellow citizens who are Black. I don’t have to think about lynchings and rapes and families broken up and unequal education and voting rights and soldiers returning from World War II being attacked for simply wanting to exercise rights they fought for and saw friends die for.
Is there a way to respect my great-grandfather in the 11th Virginia Infantry (he was a medic and later became a physician) and at the same time confront the inhumanity of slavery and the events subsequent to the Civil War? I’m still working through that and may never have a satisfactory answer – there is certainly no way to honestly engage both issues without angst – we struggle with the Fallenness of Man, we struggle with the reality of sin. I wish I knew what great-grandfather Walter Lemmon Withers was thinking, but I don’t.
What I do know is that Whites Only is an affront to all people. What I do know is that Whites Only far outweighs interest in historical battles and military leaders. How could it be that one hundred years after a war to end slavery there could be such a sign? As a disciple of Jesus Christ, whether it be a sign, a policy, a sentiment, or a series of code words, however it is expressed, toward whomever it is expressed, the equivalent of Whites Only gives not only the lie to this nation’s founding documents; it is diametrically opposed to the Kingdom of God in Christ – for the Cross is indeed the great leveler, sin is the common disease, Christ is the only salvation…and in Christ we are one.
Did the hands that made the Whites Only sign attend church? It is not outside the realm of possibility. As James writes, “My brethren, how can these things be?”
Are the perspectives and feelings and thoughts of my African-American fellow citizens, and especially of my African-American brothers and sisters in Christ, more important to me than a particular historical focus? I close with an illustration of why my answer to that question is, “Yes”, though I still struggle with my own personal awareness of the issues.
A few years ago I was a presenter at a church’s missionary and ministry conference. There were a number of us from different missions and ministries and we were given a few minutes to talk about the organizations we represented (mine was the Crisis Pregnancy Center), after which there was a time to mix with the congregation and then dinner.
At dinner, among the group I sat with was an African-American brother. As my table mates and I engaged in collegial conversation I noticed that one of the other men had a Confederate flag pin on his lapel. Now I have no idea if the Black brother took notice of this; he certainly gave no discernable indication that he did. But I was taken aback by it, for I asked myself, “Does this belong here? Does this symbol, however one might choose to interpret it, belong here? If this symbol offends my brother does it belong here?”
That evening has taken its place alongside my visit to Manassas in 1961; they are two images etched in my mind.
I write not as one who has many answers, but I am reminded of our Lord’s command that we are to love one another as He loves us; that is to be our distinguishing mark as Christians along with our unity in Him. It would seem that those two distinguishing features should be the basis of our relationships, our thoughts, our approaches to history and politics, and our distinguishing testimony.