The Smithsonian’s Historic 101 Objects That Made America
Cultural artefacts embody history and tell stories. They can be a great starting point for learning about historical developments.
The Smithsonian has recently published a new book titled 101 Objects That Made America and features a gallery of selected items on its website, including a baseball from the Negro Leagues of the 1930s, a wooden stamp from a ship sunken in the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War Two, or the Pill. Out of a wealth of historic objects, the Smithsonian’s curators faced the difficult task of selecting the most essential.
Ayun Halliday over at OpenCulture has written a nice article about the project including some interesting pictures and links. Please do have a look and enjoy visual history of the US.
Fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963, the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” marked a pivotal moment in the post-World-War-Two-era of the Civil Rights Movement. During that rally joined by between 200,000 and 300,000 participants, Martin Luther King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
During the next two years, two seminal pieces of civil rights legislation were passed: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed voter discrimination and racial segregation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enabled federal oversight of elections in order to ensure black voters were not disenfranchised by various schemes. Such had been the practice since the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War, especially in the former Confederate states of the US South.
The FBI versus the Civil Rights Movement
At the same time, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, who saw MLK as at least a communist sympathizer, tried to subvert the Civil Rights Movement. Hoover ordered surveillance on King and there is evidence to suggest that the FBI tried to persuade King to kill himself by blackmailing him with compromising material from King’s extramarital affairs. An FBI memo at the time characterized King as “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”
Barack Obama’s 2013 speech on Martin Luther King’s legacy
The 44th POTUS took the opportunity to commemorate the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King in a speech that highlighted the accomplishment of that era, but also acknowledged the remaining challenges.
And there are many: Higher unemployment and incarceration rates for peope of color, racial suspicion leading to unnecessary death as in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, racial profiling by police forces and ‘stop-and-frisk’ laws, or even open racist hostility against Obama himself. Racist anti-Obama signs displayed at Tea Party rallies and the Birther Movement questioning Obama’s American citizenship and legitimacy illustrate that in this regard, even at the highest level of power, there is no escape from the dynamics of society at large.
Race is over, say conservatives
Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal: Why do you immigrants want to be chunks of salad? You should jump into the melting pot and become real Americans!
Some American conservatives beg to differ, of course. In a recent op-ed addressing the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R), who is Indian American, and a possible 2016 presidential contender, argues for “the end of race” in America.
But contrary to the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. et al., his solution to race-related social issues in America is not to address them, but to ignore them. Jindal claims that “too much emphasis [is put] on [Americans’] “separateness,”” and that “[w]e live in the age of hyphenated Americans.” In his opinion “we must resist the politically correct trend of changing the melting pot into a salad bowl.” Oh those metaphors for America!
But in my opinion, Jindal sets up a strawman argument here. Judging from my personal reading of current events (and history) in America, the real issue is not that racial and/or ethnic groups care about their cultural heritage. The real issue is that the construct of race, as it has developed throughout American culture and history, has negative real-life effects on those not designated as white (plus male, heterosexual, etc.).
Furthermore, the idea of a mainstream American culture that people can melt into, as Israel Zangwill’s ‘melting pot’ metaphor suggests, is in itself not neutral. Who gets to define the mainstream culture? For a long time, the undisputed hegemon of mainstream American culture was the WASP male.
True, this has changed over time, to a certain degree, especially in the area of popular culture. Who would, for example, seriously deny the influence of African American culture on what became known as Rock’n’Roll, which conquered the world as a quintessentially American form popular music and youth rebellion. History thus suggests that in many ways, difference and a common culture have always coexisted in America on some level. As an outsider, I think that this is actually great about America.
As I see it, the subtext of Jindal’s article seems to be that in order to be one happy American family, everybody should adopt white mainstream culture. My suspicion is that Governor Jindal is pandering to old white men, who are currently the core GOP constituency, whom he wants to vote for him in 2016.
Fox News: Just ignore racism!
Also in the ‘racism is over’ camp are the usual suspects, namely the Fox ‘News’ punditariat. Recently, host Bill O’Reilly was talking about an incident whereas African American billionaire talk show host Opray Winfrey, who was travelling abroad in Switzerland, was not shown a very expensive handbag in a store because the clerk did not know who she was, and apparently thought that a random black woman could not afford such a luxurious item. O’Reilly suggested that, in general, people should just ignore racists, because there would be no use in trying to change their minds. But as I mentioned before, as opposed to Bill O’Reilly, people of color in America often do not have the white privilege of ignoring racism.
Coopting King for political parties
As Martin Luther King, Jr. is such an American icon and the symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, it is no wonder that both big political parties want to coopt King’s legacy for their own political purposes. Republicans are claiming that MLK was one of them. But King did not endorse any of the two parties.
One might speculate that, were he alive today, King would side with some of the Democrats’ policies. Back in his day, King criticized the racism of the GOP (and many Southern Democrats would join the GOP). But he was also critical of the Vietnam War and might certainly have some critical words about Obama’s drone war, the totalitarian surveillance by the NSA, and the unwillingness to curb the obscene excesses of capitalism on Wall Street.
On July 18 of 1969, the world held its breath. The Apollo 11 space mission was reaching the moon, preparing for the first human descent onto its surface. As Neil Armstrong, astronaut and first man on the moon, who recently passed away, famously said, the moon landing was “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind!”
But what if the endeavor had gone awry? If the Apollo 11 crew could not have returned to Earth? How would the public have reacted to such a disaster, especially at the height of the Cold War? The Nixon White House certainly did not want to leave anything to chance, and so it prepared for the worst case scenario, which fortunately never materialized.
At Letters of Note, a very recommendable blog presenting historical documents in context, you can read the prepared statement that would have been disseminated through the mass media in case of a catastrophe. It is a fascinating read, in my opinion. It ends with these words:
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
Fourty-seven years ago, on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which strengthened the rights of African Americans to cast their ballot—after highly-visible violent crackdowns on peaceful civil rights activists in Alabama and immense pressure in their aftermath.1 Even though the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, passed in 1870 as part of the Reconstruction Amendments shortly after the American Civil War, had on paper secured African Americans’ right to vote, the following century was marked by disenfranchisement through both legal tactics, such as literacy tests, but also mob violence, especially in the US South. In recent times, a push for stricter voter identification laws in some places has reignited the debate about voting rights.
Here is an excerpt of Johnson’s speech before Congress on the matter of voting rights in 1965:
Here is the full speech and its transcript at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
Over at Crash Course World History (Episode #28), the hyperactive John Green presents a humorous look at the American Revolution, including a Monty Phython-esque cut-out Ben Franklin arguing with King George over taxation and representation, all in colorful animation. The most interesting serious point, in my opinion: the Founding fathers made sure that their revolution would not develop like the French Revolution, i.e. become radically democratic.
Juneteenth falls on June 19 every year and commemorates the liberation of African Americans from slavery. It was first celebrated by former slaves in Texas in 1865, when, two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the American Civil War, Union General Gordon Granger reached Galveston Bay, accompanied by 2,000 troops.
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere. 1
The former slaves celebrated their newfound freedom with exuberant songs, barbecue, and rodeos. Throughout the late nineteenth century, Juneteenth was established an African American tradition. But with the Great Migration towards the Northern industrial centers, the holiday declined in prominence.
Moreover, during the Reconstruction Era and the rise of Jim Crow, Juneteenth was not widely endorsed by state and federal governments, especially in the former Confederate States. In Texas, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in 1890.
Since the last decades of the twentieth century, however, there has been an increased activism to bring back Juneteenth into public conscience. Currently, Juneteenth is recognized as an official holiday in thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia. [Update: It is now celebrated in fourty-two states]2
At the Griot blog, you can read about Barack Obama’s proclamation for Juneteenth 2012.3