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'Civil War' director Ken Burns on the days that would shape America's racial future




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Nearly 40 million people tuned in to PBS for the Ken Burns documentary, "The Civil War," when it premiered 25 years ago.

The 11-part series was the most extensive program produced on the subject, bringing together historical accounts, letters and pictures, many of which had never been made public.

Now, PBS is re-airing the digitally-remastered documentary 150 years after the end of the war, and just in time to add to the national conversation on race and freedom in America.

In an interview with Take Two, Burns reflected on President Abraham Lincoln and what his reaction to modern racism might be.

“I think he’d be saddened, but I don’t think he’d be surprised … I think he’d understand that the human heart is going to be a hard thing to tame … I think he’d be flabbergasted that we have an African American President. At the same time, I think he’d be deeply saddened by what’s happened in Ferguson, what’s happened in Charleston, in North Charleston and what’s happened all around the country.”

Abraham Lincoln didn’t live long enough to enact his postwar plans to reunite the country. He was shot just six days after the Confederacy surrendered. Burns says this had a profound impact on how the country would come to see race.

“It was a period of experimenting with enforcing civil rights in the vanquished Confederacy, and its collapse is the tragedy -- its collapse led to the imposition of Jim Crow, and the ascendency of the Klu Klux Klan, and lynching as a form of justice […] Americans went to war over this issue, then they kind of forgot it.”

While the subject of slavery will forever remain a sensitive one in America, he contends that the painful history is made worse by the reality that true equality has yet to be achieved.

“I think it’s less feeling the sting of history, than it is feeling the sting of being black-skinned in a culture that has yet to see people for the content of their character, as Dr. King said. Job discrimination, housing discrimination, all sorts of indignities --big and small-- that take place every day.”

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