With President Trump in the White House, everything seems under assault. Civil rights, the rule of law, our moral standing, the global liberal democratic order the United States spent decades, blood and treasure helping to form and maintain. It’s all so precarious, unsettled and unprecedented. But is it, really?
During the pilgrimage with the Faith & Politics Institute last weekend to western New York state and the landmarks of the abolition and women’s suffrage movements that were centered there, we were reminded that these dark days are neither new nor insurmountable. The scene was a panel I moderated with Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and two history professors.
My question for the historians was simple: While things aren’t nearly as bad as they were when the nation grappled with women’s rights and slavery (and fought a war over the latter), things are pretty bad. What historical lessons or wisdom from those tumultuous movements could Maloney and Reed take back to today’s tumultuous Washington?
“I’m not as quick as the rest of you to say things aren’t as bad as they were,” said Lori Ginzberg, a professor of history and women’s studies at Penn State. She was quick to note the end of slavery in the United States and the many advances for men and women since, but imparted a lesson that she said she tells her students all the time. “You have to get over the idea that things were really bad in the past, but now we’ve achieved [progress],” Ginzberg recounted. “We are not all the latest, most progressive, most advanced humans on the planet that ever could be. And our problems are as severe in their ways, in different ways.”
“History is never over,” admonished David Blight. The Yale history professor is an expert on the life of Frederick Douglass. Blight’s 900-page tome on the escaped slave and “Prophet of Freedom” whose oratory made him famous and the most photographed man of his time comes out in the fall. Blight explained that it is an American tendency to think that history is a story of relentless progress. “Ask the Russians if history is all progress,” he said. “Ask the Germans if history is [all] progress.”
“We have this obsession in America, with lots of ideas and not without reason, that somehow our history is always getting better. It’s always on an escalator that is somehow ends up going up,” Blight continued. Then he said this: “I love [former president Barack] Obama, but every time he used that famous quote that he always used about ‘the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,’ I used to say, ‘No, it’s not!’ It doesn’t always.” Acknowledging the power of the phrase that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. paraphrased from an 1853 sermon by Theodore Parker, Blight added, “History is full of just as many examples of where it did not bend toward justice. It really bends the other way and it stayed that way for a while.”
With everything happening in our country today, it certainly feels like that arc is bending the other way. But Blight counseled taking the long view. In doing so, he referenced James Baldwin’s famous 1961 interview with Studs Terkel. Bemoaning a lack of a sense of history on the part of Southern politicians during the civil rights movement, Baldwin said, “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea of what is happening around you.”
Riffing off Baldwin, Blight said, “Almost nothing can happen that hasn’t happened before.” Therefore, he went on to say, we have an “obligation” to learn about the past if only to be prepared for the shocks to come. And then he presented a powerful parallel. “The only way you’ll ever be prepared for what may happen to you, whether it’s 9/11 or something else, is because you’ll know that 9/11 also happened in the Trojan War and a thousand other times.”
These Faith & Politics pilgrimages are physically and emotionally exhausting. From walking in the footsteps of civil rights marchers to standing in the homes and at the gravesites of people we now revere as heroes, I am reminded at every turn that ordinary people with courage and conviction did extraordinary things for our country. A point driven home by Ginzberg.
“I think that then as now, grassroots organizing is the key to making real social change. … Politicians make changes because there are movements, some of which take extreme positions, that push them,” the Penn State professor said. “What those movements do is they push ideas onto the agenda and make them legitimate and move things in a direction that can actually result in political change.”
As I argued in my previous post, folks, stop wondering who’s going to save us from Trump. “You stand ready at the door of greatness,” the poet Nathan Richardson reminds us. All we have to do is push that door open. We’ve done it before. Let’s do it again.
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