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Walter Rodgers

July 4 is important -- but so is July 3

Two events on July 3, 1863 matter as much to human rights as July 4, 1776.

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On the eve of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial commemorations next year, we need to get it right and not let the “losers” shape our sense of history.

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We ought not denigrate the sacrifices or bravery of those of Southern birth, but the steely truth remains: They were on the wrong side of history, defending an immoral cause.

By canonizing Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, the South has ignored his hubris. Few recall that Lee had the highest casualties of any general, north or south. America’s most popular general, Dwight Eisenhower, once observed that Lee should have been relieved after ordering the suicidal, foolish frontal assault at Gettysburg.

American schoolchildren need to be reminded that not only did Lee own slaves but he occasionally ordered them whipped if they misbehaved.

History is rarely pretty when we look closely. But the Civil War was about preserving the United States of America and eradicating the permanent stain of human slavery. The mendacities and myths of the past must not be perpetuated.

When I was a university graduate teaching assistant in Illinois in the early 1960s, a young black woman timidly raised her hand in my history class and said, “Mr. Rodgers, you sure don’t teach history like they teach it in Arkansas.” Her name was Minnijean Brown. She was one of nine black children who, with the protection of US Marshals, integrated Little Rock Central High School. Like millions of others, she, too, was a victim of American history mistaught.

On the twin anniversaries of the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, we owe an unspeakable debt of gratitude to the Union soldiers who were on the right side of history.

Standing at the base of the bronze monument nearby, a smile crossed my face.

A class of fifth-graders came scrambling up from the elementary school down the hill. There were three or four black boys and a black girl frolicking among some 20 white children, oblivious to the statue of the Union soldier towering above them. I watched as they drank from the same water fountain.

It was an eloquent tribute to the Union Blue Coats who fought and died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, for it again breathed life into the vision of the first Fourth of July – that all men are indeed created equal.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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