On a quiet Sunday morning recently, I ran through the Vicksburg National Military Park. The park road snakes along the Union and Confederate trench lines, winding up and down the bluffs above the Yazoo Mississippi Rivers. Blue and red metal plaques mark the Union and Confederate positions while marble headstones memorialize the units that fought here in 1863. Whomever controlled Vicksburg controlled the flow of goods to the Southern interior. After months of vicious battles and a bitter 47 day siege, the Rebel forces surrendered on July 4th, 1863. When the US government established the military park here, it invited each state to build a monument to its fallen soldiers.
As I crested a small hill, I saw the sign pointing towards the Kentucky memorial. I followed the trail as it led into the former no man’s land. In the center of the battlefield stood a large marble disk with statues of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Busts of Kentucky generals who fought for the North and the South stood on their respective sides of the disk. The names of Kentucky units which fought for the Union and Confederate causes were inscribed on the low marble wall. While Kentucky joined the Union cause, a secessionist government fought with the Confederacy. I did not know that both Lincoln and Davis were both born in Kentucky. The great national divisions which nearly rent our nation asunder ran right through the Blue Grass State.
As I reflect on the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, I think about the Kentucky Monument at Vicksburg. One hundred fifty years ago we fought a bloody civil war to settle the question of what it means to be an American. The ill-fated encounter between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman and the ensuing national controversy show how this question remains unanswered.
Perhaps the public outcry and protests show that while we still have not answered the question of race in our country, the Civil War did defend the process of civil discourse and debate enshrined in our Constitution. Rodney King asked “Why can’t we all get along?” Until we can, we are all obligated as citizens to discuss, debate, march, and protest, exercising our Constitutional freedoms to try to answer the question of what it means to be an American.