This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
Introduction by Katrina vanden Heuvel
Moderated by Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Muhammad: Welcome to this very special occasion. I think that it is also fitting to note that this is the eighty-sixth birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I’d like to introduce the editor and publisher of The Nation. I consider her a friend.
Vanden Heuvel: Thank you, Khalil. The Nation was started by a group of abolitionists committed to reporting on, and participating in, this country’s struggles to live up to its founding creed. After the Civil War, the challenge was to summon into existence a new, more humane and more democratic nation.
The Nation inherited the subscription list of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, which he founded with the famous warning: “I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch and I WILL BE HEARD.” Garrison’s son was the magazine’s first literary editor; his grandson, Oswald Garrison Villard, joined W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida Wells to help found the NAACP in 1909, and created the modern Nation as we know it when he took the helm in 1918.
But it was the great Carey McWilliams who got in touch with Dr. King. From 1961 to 1966, King sent long annual reports to The Nation on the state of the civil-rights movement. His final dispatch, “The Last Steep Ascent,” focused on the importance of turning the movement toward economic justice and is, tragically, as relevant today as it was forty-nine years ago.
Muhammad: In July 1865, editor E.L. Godkin wrote in a letter: “And the tranquility which still reigns in the city, under the circumstances I confess amazes me.” Eric Foner, what exactly did he mean?
Foner: New York is a funny place—as we all know. New York before the Civil War had been very closely tied into the slave South: the cotton trade, the merchants, the carpetbaggers. Godkin is not involved in that, but he is talking about an atmosphere in New York that they want. The Civil War is over. Yes. The North has won. Wonderful. Slavery is abolished. Wonderful. But now it’s time to get back to business.
Muhammad: I also thought, Darryl, that you might want to weigh in on the relationship of democracy and its dependence on the federal government. You’ve written about this in a recent book, Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy.