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The Lessons of History | The Nation

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The Lessons of History

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Meanwhile, in the decades following World War I, the status of African Americans deteriorated to the point that it would be difficult to describe the United States as approaching or even moving clearly in the direction of an egalitarian existence. Lynching abounded; and everywhere there was racial discrimination in employment, housing, education, and political participation. Even as Hitler sought to create an Aryan race in Germany, there were those in the United States who competed with him in the search for racial purity. They did so by seeking to define the blood composition of a Negro. Sixty years after the end of slavery and thirty years into the twentieth century the state of Virginia defined a Negro as any person in whom there is ascertainable "any quantum whatever of Negro blood." In a country where the interest in the blood content of human beings would serve as the basis for privilege and equality its people could hardly have been seriously interested in democracy.

Historian John Hope Franklin delivered the Arthur M.
Schlesinger, Jr. Lecture at the New-York Historical Society on October 17. It is published here as part of The Nation's ongoing Moral Compass series, highlighting the spoken word.

About the Author

John Hope Franklin
John Hope Franklin is the James B. Duke professor emeritus of history at Duke University and for seven years was...

By the end of the twentieth century the United States had made some significant strides toward democracy. We were not yet there, but there were clear indications that we were on our way. The position of women had improved substantially. They had begun to hold high political offices. They were governors of states, members of both houses of the Congress, and mayors of important cities. They had become presidents of major corporations and presidents of colleges and universities. African Americans began to make their belated climb toward equality. The struggle was sometimes bitter, even violent; but even the courts endorsed their arguments that under the Constitution, they were entitled to equality. Vast numbers of white Americans were bitterly opposed to extending equality to the descendants of former slaves, and when the United States Supreme Court ordered the end of segregation in the public schools, a considerable number of members of the United States Congress issued a manifesto bitterly denouncing the high court's unanimous decision. This decision was followed by congressional legislation issuing to African Americans the same political and civil rights that other citizens enjoyed. Indeed, there was widespread sentiment supporting the view that African Americans should enjoy the affirmative action that white Americans had enjoyed for centuries. This privilege was extended to African Americans slowly and begrudgingly, and there were white citizens who felt that in such instances equality had stepped beyond acceptable limits. This was because some African American students were admitted to colleges and universities for no better reason than those whites who were admitted because their parents were alumni or were important contributors, or simply were white.

It is not too much to say, then, that we are moving toward democracy, but we are not there yet. One way of knowing that we are not there yet is that the sages of the land are modest about what we have achieved. We need to have a credible program of political, economic, and social goals that are clear, and we need to have an agenda for reaching them. We need to remember that so many of our national elections are characterized by uncertainty, disputes and turmoil. Do we really want to commend our noisy, boisterous, and ludicrous arguments to the rest of the world as worthy of emulation? Do we want to spread practices around the world that have developed here, such as a full blown institution of lobbying that is about as powerful as Congress itself? These and other practices have developed here out of the experience of those who are in or near the political arena. Some say that they are a part of the political culture that flow naturally from the practice of politics as we have experienced it over time. Many say that the practices here, regardless of whether they are good or bad, come from the experience of the people of the United States, and it is as impossible to export them as it would be to export the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving Day.

I am distressed, as many others are, about what we do export and its impact of such exportations on the people in places where we do display our wares, our culture, our hubris, if I may say so. A few examples will suffice. Some years ago, I was having lunch with some friends in a rather tony restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey. I was a bit startled to hear a sharp, reprimanding, and loud unmistakably American male voice. He shouted at an innocent looking Turkish waiter, "How dare you bring me a can of warm coke and a glass of shaved ice, when I told you that I drink my coke out of a can!" He then described in a crude, tasteless manner how the warm coke tasted. The waiter respectfully apologized and sought quickly to make amends for his error. I wondered what the waiter and the other European and local Turkish patron thought of this boisterous, bullying American who was imposing his will and his power over a hapless subordinate.

On another occasion, when I was traveling in South Asia as chair of our Fulbright Board, I visited Sri Lanka. I had known a junior cultural officer there since she was a graduate student in one of our prized southern institutions. She had come a long way since emerging from a West Virginia high school and had graduated from college. When I encountered her in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I congratulated her for having made such great strides. She thanked me and then apologized for not having been able to stage for me a really grand dinner with a dozen or more guests. She said that she wished she could have done more than a small luncheon, but she was down to her last two servants. When I observed at the luncheon how she treated them, I wondered how or why she had any servants left.

Another example is from a different part of the world. On one occasion my wife and I were traveling in the Soviet Union, where I was lecturing. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a person in the audience asked me quite frankly how rich I was. I told him that I was not at all wealthy. He then asked me how I had obtained an education in the United States if I had no wealth. He understood, from information and observation, that only wealthy Americans could obtain an education. That gave me an opportunity to explain the system of scholarships and other benefits, aside from public education, that were available in the United States. It was clear to me that the distorted impression abroad was that in our "class ridden" society, wealth and privilege were all-important in moving from one level to another. While it was in the interest of the Soviets to promulgate such false doctrines, we unfortunately contributed to them by the way we acted and the manner in which we were willing to "pull rank" at the slightest opportunity.

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