History is Not What Happened Two Hundred Years Ago; It is a Story About What Happened Two Hundred Years Ago*

Last week, a colleague shared an article that pushed me to think about how different generations view the world. I come at this question from various perspectives—as a baby boomer responsible for staff from multiple generational groups, a father of two millennials, a son of parents of the “greatest generation,” and so on.  You get the point.

Since I’m in the history business, my thinking focused on the major episodes of the past that have influenced generations I’ve known.  Both my parents grew up in the Depression and were greatly affected by the New Deal, Pearl Harbor and WWII.  My generation grew up during the expanding economic cycles of the 1950s and 60s with the rise of the middle class, but also experienced the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, not to mention Vietnam.  Two of my siblings grew up in the Reagan era, with its attacks on the New Deal and government.  For my children, their early and teenage years were shaped in part by 9/11, rising economic inequality, and the Great Recession of 2008.

Understanding how each successive generation views the world raises questions around how the stories about the past change.  That includes identifying the sight lines that we have available to see and tell those stories. One way we can grow our understanding of generational perspectives is through seeing the places where history happened.  I was not alive during Pearl Harbor, but when I was privileged to take an early morning tour of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii one Memorial Day weekend, I began to truly grasp the enormity of the sacrifice on that December Sunday morning in 1941 and its impact on my parents’ generation.

U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor on Memorial Day Weekend

U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor

On this day when we’ve just completed our annual celebration of the life and work of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there may be those not alive in the 1960s who wonder about his true impact.  Many younger generations know King only as a symbol or a type of civic deity.  Yet there are places, when paired with his writings, which demonstrate why he is so important today. Clayborn Temple is one such place.  When King came to Memphis in 1968 to support the sanitation workers—those African American men who went out on strike and walked the streets with their now famous “I Am a Man” signs—he was reviled by much of white America. Even those moderates who said they supported his work raised issues with his tactics.  (Think of his response to white pastors in Letters from Birmingham Jail.) That trip to Memphis, of course, ended in his assassination.

Clayborn Temple

Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Steve Jones)

 

I Am A Man

Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)

Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop:  A Sermon to White America, makes King’s status then and now abundantly clear. Dyson argues that America has “washed the grit from his rhetoric” in order to get to a place where he can be seen and admired by the country at large.  Yet it was King who said that the race problem “grows out of the . . . need that some people have to feel superior.  A need that some people have to feel . . . that their white skin ordained them to be first.”  King also said, “Our nation was born in genocide, when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race.”  Difficult words for many to hear, yet, “This is why King is so important to this generation, to this time, to this nation, to our people,” Dyson writes. “He spoke the truth that we have yet to fully acknowledge.”

Clayborn Temple Memorial

“I Am a Man” Memorial at Clayborn Temple in Memphis

King’s words are powerful, but they also grew out of a history. I’ve seen those antecedents most recently in the writings of Thomas Paine, “the incendiary voice of the American Revolution” as described by Lewis Lapham, and the first individual to write a denunciation of slavery in America. Read these words from Paine’s Rights of Man and see how they provide a prologue to King’s Poor People’s Campaign:

“When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance or distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive . . . when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.  What we often obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Understanding generational perspectives on the American story requires work, just as seeking the point of view of different communities of people can be hard.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort.  Only when we open our eyes, minds, and hearts to our fellow human beings and acknowledge truths that have remained hidden—only when “one’s fellow citizens are … held in honorable regard not because they are rich or notably generous, but because they are one’s fellow citizens”—will we be able to progress towards the aspirations of America’s founding documents.

With gratefulness for the life—and continuing impact—of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*The title is adapted from a line in Lewis H. Lapham’s Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy

The Founding Father We’d Do Well to Find Once Again

Thomas Paine by Craig Nelson

“Thomas Paine Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations” by Craig Nelson

Thomas Paine and Roger Williams are the two founding fathers whose work is most often forgotten yet remains among the most consequential today.  My belief was strengthened upon reading Craig Nelson’s excellent 2006 biography, Thomas Paine:  Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations.

Paine, born in England and truly a citizen of the Enlightenment world, wrote three of the bestsellers of the eighteenth century, topped only by the Bible.  His Common Sense has long been recognized as a key work in changing the hearts and minds of the people of the United Colonies into citizens of what Paine was the first to characterize as the United States.  Similarly, his Rights of Man helped shape the French Revolution and — although it would take more than a century — inspire constitutional reform in Great Britain and foreshadow Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Age of Reason, a forceful call against organized religion, finds Paine sticking to his Enlightenment and deist values even at the expense of his public reputation. Paine’s mind was clearly a force of nature, and Nelson characterizes him as “the Enlightenment Mercury who sparked political common cause between men who worked for a living and empowered aristocrats across all three nations.”

One of Nelson’s great accomplishments is to explain Enlightenment thinking and values in a way which places Paine and his work in a well-constructed context.  Paine certainly has his flaws as a person, but he is more easily understood when placed within the value system that drove so many of the leading philosophers and political leaders of the late eighteenth century. Nelson’s other important accomplishment is to showcase Paine’s incredible relevance today.

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Paine’s famous opening to The American Crisis, written in the winter of 1776, resonates today as much as it did when Washington’s small army was fighting for its life at Trenton and Princeton. Nelson certainly recognizes the challenge when he notes that the coalition that controls America today repudiates much of Paine in following the John Adams—Alexander Hamilton, ruling class of the rich, style of government.  “While Franklin, Paine, and Jefferson would be crestfallen that the modern-day American federal government is the reserve of a new aristocracy—multimillionaire plutocrats and their corporate sponsors—Adams and Hamilton would be just as shocked to learn that their admired ruling elite no longer even pretends to lives of virtue.”

In his Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy, author Lewis H Lapham includes the essay The World in Time which makes this point even more forcefully.  Lapham turns to Paine and doesn’t find himself

“in the presence of a marble portrait bust,” but meets instead a man “writing in what he knew to be ‘the undisguised language of the historical truth.’ To read Tom Paine is to encounter the high-minded philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment rendered in words simple enough to be readily understood.”

Instead of addressing the rich, as do many of the other Founding Fathers, Paine “talks to ship chandlers and master mechanics, and in place of a learned treatise he substitutes the telling phrase and the memorable aphorism—’Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.'”

Thomas Paine, in both Nelson and Lapham’s rendering, has “remained in the attic of oblivion” due to the publication of The Age of Reason and the subsequent attacks—over the next two hundred years—that placed him clearly outside this country’s obsession with religion.  Lapham notes that “Paine’s plain and forthright speaking is out of tune with our own contemporary political discourse, which for the most part is the gift for saying nothing.”

As we struggle through constitutional crises, we would do well to find one of our most important founding fathers.  Paine’s writing might be the tonic to point us back towards democracy.

More to come…

DJB