In Gettysburg, Trump Supporters Clash with Black Lives Matter Protesters as Election NearsHistorians in the News
tags: Confederacy, Donald Trump, Protest, 2020 Election
Nearly 160 years after a battle here helped turn the tide of the Civil War, Gettysburg is once again riven by conflict. The acrimony — including angry confrontations and arrests — has not yet led to violence, let alone the kind of bloodshed this town endured over three days in 1863.
But the divisions on display in Gettysburg are emblematic of tensions gripping Pennsylvania and the nation as the presidential election approaches. Disputes over race, social justice, identity and Americans’ understanding of their own history have played out here in vivid fashion, with Black Lives Matter demonstrators facing off against counterprotesters toting AR-15 rifles in plain view of the diners at the Blue and Gray Bar & Grill.
But the debate is also about this town’s symbolic stature in American consciousness — what Gettysburg should mean and to whom. The battle that made it famous, some residents note, is seldom celebrated for what it was: a victory that advanced the cause of ending slavery and led to Abraham Lincoln’s vow that the nation “shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Instead, visitors often immerse themselves in the minutiae of the opposing sides’ military tactics. The reverence exhibited for soldiers’ valor can at times blur uncomfortably into “Lost Cause” nostalgia for states that fought to defend white supremacy. Confederate statues have been toppled across the country, but Gettysburg’s 40 monuments to the slaveholding states and their soldiers remain untouched.
“Very few Black people, in my experience, come to Gettysburg. It’s not a very welcoming place, and the emphasis is on strategy rather than emancipation,” said Karl Mattson, who retired as Gettysburg College’s chaplain 19 years ago and still lives in town. “The hope is that a different narrative will develop.”
To that end, Mattson, White and 86, has begun distributing hundreds of signs around town aimed at rebranding Gettysburg’s legacy: “This battle was fought because Black lives matter.”
As Palmer began to study the Civil War in greater detail, he became increasingly perplexed by the worship of the Confederacy evident around Gettysburg. “It’s comical, but in another sense its almost alarming,” he said, “that people will fly the Confederate flag and the American flag together as if they were the same country.”
On July Fourth, Palmer joined a friend — Scott Hancock, a Black professor of history and Africana studies at Gettysburg College — on an excursion to some of the battlefield’s Confederate monuments. Hancock had been organizing similar trips for several years. He and those who joined him would carry signs displaying historical documents with information about Confederate leaders’ views on race and on why the war was fought.
This year, the group met with an unprecedented reaction. Hundreds of armed men and women had turned out in response to online rumors of an American flag-burning. Hancock said some people yelled at him to go back to Africa or said that he just wanted to collect his welfare check. At Mississippi’s monument, camouflaged men were lying in the grass with rifles. Hancock’s group ultimately left and were trailed by men on motorcycles until they reached a police command station.
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