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Comments at the Supreme Court Introducing NEH’s Created Equal Initiative

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

The Supreme Court Washington, DC
United States

February 20, 2013

Thank you, Gwen Ifil, for your generous introduction, and thank you, Justice Breyer, for making it possible to meet this evening in this distinguished venue. 

Tonight we have come together to celebrate the civil rights movement, a movement that was born of controversies springing from the inception of the Republic and the goal of the founders to establish a union capable of accommodating the conflicting sensibilities of each of the original colonies.  From the beginning, the historic commitment to inalienable, Creator endowed rights in the Declaration of Independence was irreconcilable with the sanctioning of slavery initially established in the Constitution.   Hence the struggle for civil rights evolved with the growth of the nation itself. 

Tonight we will watch scenes from four films that are part of an initiative called Created Equal that we are launching this evening as part of NEH’s Bridging Cultures program.  These extraordinary documentaries bring to life the courageous voices of those who fought to redefine freedom and justice in America and offer opportunities for audiences to connect their own lives to this legacy and its relevance to today’s challenges.   NEH intends to distribute these films with extensive discussion material to 500 communities around the country in an endeavor that may be the most cohesive visual education initiative ever undertaken in civil rights.

By background, the National Endowment for the Humanities was created in 1965 in the middle of the modern civil rights movement.  Our legislative mandate is to support basic research in history, literature, philosophy and related disciplines and to disseminate to as wide a public audience as possible the perspective and wisdom that the humanities provide.  Accordingly, from our inception we have supported pioneering research that has documented the roles of civil rights leaders as well as thousands of unsung individuals and previously underemphasized events.  We have assisted in the editing and preservation of the papers of historic figures such as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., supported teacher institutes, museum exhibitions, and thousands of civil rights programs of NEH-affiliated state councils.  We have also funded hundreds of documentary films designed to help the public understand American history, our unique values, and our country’s relationship with the world. 

In this context, the reason we at the NEH proposed to announce our Created Equal initiative at this symbolic venue is the centrality of the Supreme Court to so many civil rights issues. 

As you have seen from two of the clips, Slavery by Another Name documents how an intransigent social structure in a group of Southern states accommodated for three quarters of a century a coercive peonage system rather than accept the framework of post-Civil War Constitutional amendments and subsequent Supreme Court rulings outlawing abusive contract labor laws. 

By contrast, The Loving Story is a beautifully innocent love story, an account of two Virginians who brought a case before the Supreme Court that eventuated in a ruling directing states not to infringe on the right of interracial couples to marry.

After dinner, you will see clips of The Abolitionists, which tells the story of a movement committed to instilling social equality into law and the Constitution itself.  

Unlike the advocacy for new law, the fourth film, Freedom Riders, shows how a small group of idealists – less than 500 – could through grit and courage cause thoughtful law that had already been made, but ignominiously ignored, to become enforced in a swath of the South.  By becoming models of non-violence and accepting beatings and imprisonment on trumped up civil disturbance charges, the Freedom Riders caused their fellow citizens to insist that their government put an end to segregation in public transportation.  The 300 freedom riders who were imprisoned at Parchman State Penitentiary in Mississippi may be the first citizens in American history to be jailed for supporting a Supreme Court ruling.

Each of these documentaries converges on the space where human dignity and freedom conjoin.  Each provides a window into the tension between social change and the law.  Each demonstrates how leadership in America comes at times from elected officials and appointed judges and at other times from individual citizens, sometimes quite young, who lead movements that re-set the nation’s moral compass. 

It is the intersection of the public with its government that causes society to adapt to changing circumstances and changing values.  Abraham Lincoln, as the Abolitionists so well documents, led the nation, but in many ways citizens like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Lloyd Garrison led their President.   Likewise, the Freedom Riders of 1961 led their leaders in Washington.  Despite entreaties from envoys of the highest in our government to cease and desist their efforts, they chose to force a civil rights agenda on politicians who were philosophically sympathetic but deeply fearful of political repercussions.

Evoking a metaphor of a 19th Century abolitionist, Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us how the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.  This is the premise of what we are trying to convey with our Created Equal initiative. 

The history of the American civil rights movement, what it is about and how and why it came about, is important.  How we lead or fail to lead in this century will be directly related to how we comprehend our own history, values, and diversity of experiences and how deeply we relate our own experiences to the respect or lack therof that we come to hold for other peoples and societies.  This is why we take our work so seriously at the NEH.

We are pleased that despite the Congressional recess, Washington, D.C.’s Representative in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, is with us this evening as are  some of our partners in civil rights scholarship and projection – Leslie Herrman, director of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Kinshasha Conwill deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Paula Kerger president of the Public Broadcasting System, Pat Harrison, president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Nancy Abraham, the senior vice president of documentary programming at HBO, and, of course, the teams from American Experience and Twin Cities Public Television.

And from a personal perspective, I would like to recognize the presence of a modern day civil rights pioneer, our colleague at the NEH, Deputy Chairman Carole Watson.  Before her long and distinguished public service career, Carole was one of those who at a young age instinctively joined in the pursuit of justice and dignity.  In 1957, as a high school student and youth leader in Wichita, Kansas, she helped lead what may have been the first thoroughly successful sit-in to change a city’s segregated lunch-counter policies. 

Moral shaming, Carole showed, could be a powerful tool.  Despite doubts of her elders and the formal request of the NAACP, which was fearful that the undertaking would be too dangerous for young idealists, to refrain from the effort, the Wichita youth persisted and caused the city’s lunch-counter owners to back down.   The next year at the annual NAACP convention they were honored for their courage and the model they set.   Thank you, Carole.

Let me conclude by thanking the National Trust for the Humanities for its support for this evening’s event and to express the agency’s gratitude to each of the individuals and companies that you see listed on your program:  Bruce and Nora James, Albert Small, Judy and Peter Kovler and the following companies:  Booz Allen Hamilton, David Bruce Smith Publications, DuPont, LexisNexis and Southwest Airlines.

Please accept our thanks.