ON THE eve of the 100th anniversary of the attack on Fort Wagner, the poet Robert Lowell looked upon Boston’s famous monument to the soldiers who fought there with despair. In the Civil War battle on July 18, 1863, black members of Massachusetts’ 54th Regiment fought their first major engagement against a Confederate force. Though their assault on the fort failed, the soldiers’ enormous heroism has often been portrayed as a turning point in civil rights history, putting to rest prejudices about the bravery and ability of blacks. But for Lowell, writing in the era of Jim Crow, “the drained faces of Negro school children” on television seemed to make a mockery of the supposed triumph.
The progress since Lowell wrote “For the Union Dead” has been profound: Legal segregation is over, voting rights have been restored, a black man sits in the Oval Office. Still, the 150th anniversary of the battle, on Thursday, shouldn’t pass without some of the same introspection.
Indeed, the anniversary arrives at a moment of unexpected racial tension. The acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer in Florida has reawakened broad, uncomfortable questions about how fully the US legal system, and American society as a whole, respects African-Americans. Martin, a black teenager carrying an iced tea and a bag of candy, was killed by an armed neighborhood-watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, who suspected Martin was a criminal, confronted him, and shot him in the ensuing fight. A jury accepted Zimmerman’s self-defense claim, and acquitted him on Saturday.
Martin’s killing has raised many questions about the expansion of self-defense laws, concealed handguns, gated communities, and the thread of racial anxiety that seems to connect them. For all the success in securing civil rights since Lowell wrote his poem, breaking down stereotypes and suspicion has been slower. Still, the overall progress for African-Americans gives reason for optimism. The revolution that was only a hope and a dream for the Massachusetts 54th, and that seemed so frustratingly elusive for a hundred years after their deaths, has begun to reach fruition in the last 50 years. Today’s anniversary is a time to renew the commitment to racial equality for all Americans.