When I teach history (or heck, when I think about it), I tend to (try to) see the relevance in today’s world. Apparently, other folks do this as well. Each quarter, when I ask students why they decided to take a history course, a majority of them say something about history being “useful” in explaining the world. There have been many times when I’m staggered by the insightful connections they make in class. Presidential candidates attempt this all the time. Too bad for all of us, they usually do so very poorly. And not unoften (that one’s for you, Grant), the stakes can hardly be higher.
Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton had an (in)famous kerfuffle a couple years back when they were both vying for the Democratic nomination. Although I suspect this instance was partly blown out of proportion by the news media, they disagreed over who should “get credit” for the gains of the Civil Rights Movement: political elites or grassroots activists. Clinton seemed to give more credence and credit to a reading of the Movement whereby the foul-mouthed Texan LBJ (that is not a slur) heroically signed the 1964 and 1965 acts. “Damn you America,” he said, “I’m doing this thing.” (Editor’s note: LBJ probably did not say those exact words. There would have been a lot more swearing involved.) Obama, alternatively, emphasized the contributions of on-the-ground activists.
It may not seem too important, but what was at stake was whether change and improvement comes from “above” or “below”—a well-worn, though hardly decided, debate. While Clinton is correct that elites have a lot of say about what actually happens in the world (something we too often forget or want to forget), in this case, Obama was more right. The Acts LBJ signed into law only came after over a hundred years of diverse and varying activism and struggle on the parts of activists—folks like Sojourner Truth, Callie House, W.E.B. DuBois, Ella Baker, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X to name only a few. Even within the framework I’ve just listed out, I’ve favored some very well-known folks and ignored the likes of women Welfare Rights Organization activists, sanitation strikers in Memphis, and blacks who believed separate electric trolleys in turn-of-the-century urban America were unjust.
What I’ve just described above is more than what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall calls “the long civil rights movement.” Hall argues that the Civil Rights Movement’s origins lie in 1930s unionism and radical New Deal politics—something other scholars like Robert Korstad call “Civil Rights Unionism” (in sum, economic rights are civil rights, too). I agree with this general thrust, but the Movement, in fact, can be traced further back, to what some scholars seem to be calling a “Freedom Struggle” (like Hasan Kwame Jeffries of Ohio State University) This was a struggle for equality and justice that stretches at least to Reconstruction and, if we’re honest, to before the Civil War.
Hall is right, however, in pointing out the “political uses of the past”—particularly by the New Right. She argues the Right co-opted parts of the rhetoric from the Movement. A prime example is MLK’s “I have a dream” speech. Cherry picking from MLK’s noble legacy lends itself to conservative colorblind politics that erase what the man and the Movement actually fought for. This then makes it seem like the Civil Rights Movement was successful, that the better angels of our nature won out, and that we can now all move on.
Today, racist comments by Messrs. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum represent just one manifestation of this ahistorical civil rights history. Believing that all blacks are lazy, unemployed, and apathetic, Gingrich and Santorum have regaled the press with moral lessons for the (black) poor (and then hastily backpedaled . . . sort of). They’ll show them how to get a job and how to work for that American Dream. Damn, the NAACP must be thinking. Why didn’t we think of that? In the world of the current Republican presidential candidates, the welfare state makes people lazy, and black people are the laziest of them all. They don’t stop with insulting the history of civil rights, however.
The Republican bloc has also (mis)engaged with the history of the Holocaust of World War II. First off the bat, is Mr. Gingrich who claimed Palestinians were a fictitious people. Sure they were, Newt. Those years of “colonial” rule by Great Britain were really just a series of complex camping training exercises in the Middle East. Then they handed over that bunch of vacant land to the United Nations who only then realized in 1947 that they could hand off portions of it to the Jewish community. Newt’s ridiculous comment erases an entire people, makes light of the suffering and tragic past of the Jewish people in Europe and the Middle East, lays unspeakable blame on the German nation (for if there was nobody in the cultural homeland of the Jewish diaspora, then why exterminate them?), and mocks the noblest of degrees: a PhD in history.
Newt wasn’t done, however. In an effort to appeal to the idiotic amongst the Jewish community, he warned that allowing Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon could lead to a second holocaust of the Jewish people. And moreover, it would be Obama’s fault! How’s that for campaigning? With this single utterance, Newt again reduced the suffering of the Holocaust of World War II in the 1930s and 1940s and erased the previous collective experiences of suffering of other communities, notably the Holocaust of Enslavement and the Irish Potato famine.
Rick Santorum couldn’t leave it all to Gingrich, however, and added his own little interpretation to the mix. He, too, blames Obama for his stance toward Iran (despite the President declaring that no options are off the table). Obama’s stance is so moderate, even conservative for Rick, that it’s tantamount to “appeasement.” Really? Obama’s position that open warfare with Iran is feasible, even likely, is comparable to the infamous policy of British PM Neville Chamberlain, who declared “peace in our time” after the Munich Conference with Adolf Hitler? That’s what you’re going with?
Well Mr. Gingrich, at least Santorum has an excuse: he doesn’t have a PhD in history.