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The American Civil War Ended on This Day. It Should Be a National Holiday

Rather than celebrate this milestone of multiracial democracy, our leaders conspicuously ignore the occasion

Today should be a national holiday in the United States, but the wrong people are celebrating. On this day in 1865, Confederate Gen Robert E Lee surrendered to Union forces – marking the effective defeat of the Confederacy and the triumph of those who opposed the idea that this should be a white nationalist nation where Black bodies could be bought and sold on the open market. Yet rather than celebrate this seminal milestone in defending and creating a multiracial democracy, the country’s leaders ignore the occasion, creating a vacuum into which the champions of white nationalism happily goose-step.

Boiled down to its essence, the civil war began because the presidential candidate sympathetic to African Americans, Abraham Lincoln, won the election of 1860, and the losing side refused to accept the election results (sound familiar?). That defiance of democracy led to 11 states seceding from the Union and forming the Confederacy, which was founded, in the words of Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens, “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition”. The civil war was a truly existential conflict that raged for four years of killing and carnage that resulted in the deaths of 2% of the country’s residents – the equivalent of 7 million people, based on today’s population.

The day not only recalls the defeat of the white supremacists, but the beginning of the first faltering steps towards making the country a multiracial democracy. During Reconstruction, laws were passed, land divided and institutions created to foster education and public health for people of all racial backgrounds. In the words of the writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, “the years directly after slavery saw the greatest expansion of human and civil rights this nation would ever see”.

One would think that such a landmark achievement would be annually remembered, recognized and cherished. But one would be wrong. It is in fact the Confederates and their ideological and genealogical heirs who regularly nurture the memories of those who fought for legalized white supremacy within our borders.

Organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans promoted and defended the creation of hundreds of monuments to Confederate leaders across the country and continue to do so to this day. (You can buy shot glasses, belt buckles and bars of soap honoring Confederate heroes online.) Hollywood showered huge sums of money on creating films such as The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind that sanitized mass murder and human bondage. To this day, Texas offers a paid holiday to state employees so that they can celebrate Confederate Heroes Day and honor the white supremacists Jefferson Davis and Robert E Lee.

For the health of our democracy, the education of our children, and the elevation of the vision and values that this is a nation where people of all racial backgrounds are cherished, we should launch a movement from coast to coast to make 9 April a holiday.

There is a reason that the rallying cry about the Holocaust is “never forget”. People around the world recognize the importance of preserving the memory of one of the great atrocities in the history of humanity so that it doesn’t occur again. Nazism is predicated on the same kinds of white supremacist beliefs that precipitated the civil war, and an institutionalized reminder of the threat and defeat of that threat will help create guardrails to defend the democracy in the future.

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Modern-day Confederates are well aware of the importance of what children are taught about this country’s racial history and contemporary realities. That is why leaders in former slaveholding states such as Florida, Virginia and Texas have passed legislation and taken aggressive action to whitewash their curricula through attacks on so-called critical race theory.

Public support for racial justice requires an understanding and appreciation of the persistence and prevalence of racial injustice. Formalizing the recognition of what the civil war was, which side won, and where we currently stand will deepen young people’s understanding and commitment to continuing the vigilance needed to foster racial justice and equality.

As much as the holiday itself, the debate over establishing it will educate the country and affirm our values. We don’t have to wait for a divided Congress to act. School boards, city councils, boards of supervisors, and state legislatures can all pass resolutions marking the occasion and declaring a local holiday, thereby creating momentum for a federal holiday. And introducing a bill in Congress will force members to go on record, creating a basis for ads and campaign materials challenging voters to choose a side between white nationalism and multiracial democracy.

The only reason not to proceed is a lack of courage – and bad math skills. The ideological descendants of the Confederacy will get mad, no question; but they are not the majority. Forcing people to choose will reveal that the majority want a multiracial democracy, and if that is in fact the case let’s set aside 9 April as a day of national celebration.

Steve Phillips is the founder of Democracy in Color and a Guardian US columnist. He is the author of How We Win the Civil War: Securing a Multiracial Democracy and Ending White Supremacy for Good