By Jim Leach
To mark the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the National Endowment for the Humanities is highlighting the arc of American history that scholars have called “the long civil rights movement.” Stretching back before the Civil War and extending beyond the 1960s, this period of profound change saw America struggle to make the ideals of freedom and the pursuit of happiness a reality for all.
As Earl Lewis, the distinguished historian and president-designate of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, writes in his essay in this commemorative issue of HUMANITIES, “the famous and the unknown systematically dismantled the edifice of segregation through dogged action and concerted strategy.” Lewis parses the historiography of the movement, filling his canvas with activ- ist mobilizers, behind-the-scenes organizers, the eloquent and the quiet, the intellectuals and the strategists.
The Endowment, an institution created by Congress in 1965, has been a chronicler of this struggle for freedom and human dignity at the core of the American experience. As a steward of the nation’s history, NEH has helped scholars and the public better understand this long narrative of national trans- formation. Through support for research and public programs and the editing and preservation of the papers of historic figures like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., it has helped foster new perspectives on the sacrifices and values of those who made such a difference in changing America.
NEH’s partners in the state humanities councils have hosted countless programs and public lectures in communities across the nation reflecting on Civil War and civil rights milestones. Barbara Carpenter of the Mississippi Humanities Council, for instance, told an interviewer, “Civil rights is absolutely integral to everything we do . . . [It is] an emotional, highly political, foundational issue.” Mass Humanities commemorated a civil rights anniversary by looking back on the rhetoric that helped fire the abolitionists. In a republication of works by nineteenth-century intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the council’s partners, The Atlantic, encouraged readers to see the evolution of American thinking about race and freedom over the decades. “Emancipation is the demand of civilization,” Emerson wrote in 1862. “That is a principle; everything else is an intrigue.”
In 2013, as part of the Endowment’s Bridging Cultures initiative, the “Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle” project will distribute copies of four NEH-funded documentary films—The Abolitionists, Slavery by Another Name, The Loving Story, and Freedom Riders—to hundreds of communities across the country. In early broadcasts, these films have helped viewers of all ages reflect on the inhumanity of slavery, lynching, and “whites only ” water fountains, and, at the same time, hear the courageous voices of those who fought to redefine freedom and justice in America.
With its films, program discussion guides, and educational material, the “Created Equal” project is designed to expand opportunities for individu- als from different walks of life to reflect on what can be learned from the dreams and accomplishments of those who came before. “Created Equal” allows them to consider how they connect their own lives and experiences to a legacy of heroism and struggle. It provides the perspective that understand- ing of past challenges might bring to current events. It may cause citizens to ponder how previous generations resolved their differences. And perhaps ask: How should we?
(Jim Leach served as chairman of NEH from August 2009 to May 2013)