Capturing the Spirit of Democracy

Museum of the American Revolution
Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia, PA (source: Wikipedia)

 The Museum of the American Revolution opened in April of this year, funded largely by private donations.  Located in Old City Philadelphia, the museum is just blocks from Independence Hall and across the street from the First Bank of the United States founded by Alexander Hamilton.

The museum documents the history of the American Revolution through numerous exhibits, short films and reenactments, including hundreds of artifacts ranging from pamphlets to clothing to ships and weapons used by both sides.

But what really sets this museum apart is that, through pictures and short videos, it also tells the stories of real people, of farmers, African and Native Americans. And in so doing, it seems to capture the “spirit” of a Revolution where ordinary people rose up to oppose the oppression of a distant monarch and claim the “right” to govern themselves.

Upon entering the museum, an exhibit recounts how George Washington deliberately chose to live in a tent, to demonstrate that he was not above his men, and that he would share the hardships of long and brutal winters that nearly destroyed his army.  At the end of a video presentation, the curtain rises and the actual tent Washington used is revealed.

Another exhibit documents the contributions of Thomas Paine, a Philadelphian who helped spark the Revolution with the pamphlet “Common Sense” and whose later rallied troops on the brink of defeat with a series of pamphlets, “The American Crisis” (see excerpt below), written in part while Paine was encamped with Washington’s army near Trenton.

At one point, there’s a video reenactment of patriots tearing down a statue of King George III in Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan.  Its serves as a timely reminder that we must oppose tyranny in all its forms, and that the symbols of tyranny matter, whether kings or Confederate generals who fought to preserve slavery.

At another point towards the end of the museum’s self-guided tour, the question is posed: “What Kind of Nation did the Revolution Create?”  The answer suggests a tension that continues to this day:

“The Revolution is not over yet … ever since the adoption of the Constitution, Americans have struggled to balance their ideals of Liberty with the practical need for governmental authority.”

Later, as you exit the exhibition halls, there is a wall covered with mirrors.  Standing before the wall, with your image reflected in the glass, a caption asks you to gaze upon “the Future of the American Revolution.”  It gets you thinking.

Today, the spirt of the American Revolution is being challenged as never before.  It can be subtle as when our elected officials manipulate the media to cast tax breaks for the rich as health care or economic reform.  Or it can be more overt, as when those same officials denigrate and arrest minorities.

But subtle or overt, such actions betray the values of our founders fought for.  The Museaum of the American Revolution reminds us we have a duty as citizens to look in that mirror, and to fight to reaffirm the principles of justice and equality for all that are the foundation of our great democracy.

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. 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 obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. (Thomas Pain, the American Crisis, December 23, 1776)

Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

Andrew Young
Civil rights icon Andrew Young appearing on Meet the Press

Andrew Young was interviewed on Meet the Press on Sunday (Aug. 20) in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, Va.  Young, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and protege of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., agreed with the essence of TDV’s point of view that we need to be careful not to let our outrage and condemnation drown out larger issues that may be in play including extreme poverty and lack of opportunity for too many Americans of all races.

Here are excerpts from the interview with Young:

The reason I feel uncomfortable condemning the Klan types is they are almost the poorest of the poor. They are the forgotten Americans. They have been used and abused and neglected …

We need to keep our eyes on the prize, and the prize is not everyone getting even. The prize is redemption …

Our job is not to put down white people. Our job is to lift everyone up together, to learn to live together as brothers and sisters, rather than perish together as fools.”

In addition to advising and marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement, Young formerly served as Chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was also a congressman from Georgia; UN ambassador during the Carter Administration, and the Mayor of Atlanta.

Here’s a video of the full interview at nbcnews.com

Voices from the Past: Remembering JFK

President John. F. Kennedy

Through much of the late 1940’s and 1950’s, the U.S. was in a state of fear. The memories of the Great Depression and W.W. II were still fresh, but now Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was replacing Fascism as the next great threat. The Korean War was fought in 1950 through July 1953, highlighting the rise of Communist China.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg went on trial in 1951, accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. They were executed in 1953 in what many regarded as a legalized lynching.

Shortly thereafter, a prominent member of the Rosenberg’s prosecution team, Roy Cohn, was appointed chief counsel to the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and, working for Senator Joseph McCarthy, helped lead the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.  Those hearings further whipped the nation into a near frenzy of fear and suspicion. It was a low point when American liberties were tested, a time in which it was a de facto crime simply to associate with known “Communists”.

In those dark days, a little known junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, published a book in 1957, Profiles in Courage, which came through as a ray of sunshine.   Indeed, times were changing. The economy was improving and Americans were emerging from the shadows of the post-war period into a new era of optimism and hope. Kennedy’s book, which profiled senators down through history who stood up and fought for what they believed irrespective of the consequences, captured that new spirit and helped catapult Kennedy to the Presidency over Richard Nixon in 1960.

It is worth revisiting some of Kennedy’s words in Profiles In Courage (and later repeated in a 1960 speech) as we enter a moment in American history when fear and suspicion again seem to be triumphing over the American spirit of optimism and hope:

If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal’, then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal’.

Kennedy was not perfect. As if forgetting his own words, as President he took the country to the near brink of war over the Cuban missile crisis. And there were accusations that much of Profiles In Courage was ghost written. But there is no denying that Kennedy helped usher in a new, more optimistic period in American history, and that may be his greatest legacy and one worth remembering in times of crisis.

Kennedy’s words remind us that “liberalism” is not a dirty word, but a way of viewing the world that is inherently optimistic; that rejects fear mongering and embraces the role of government in serving the needs of people.

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King

It’s 1963. In the spring of that year, Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Birmingham, Alabama police chief, unleashed high-pressure water cannons and police dogs on civil rights marchers, including children. By early June, George Wallace, the Governor, was standing on the steps blocking the admission of black students to the University of Alabama. After watching the scene at the University unfold on television earlier that day, President Kennedy addressed the Nation on his intent to introduce Civil Rights legislation guaranteeing African-Americans equal voting rights and an end to segregation. Sadly, the same night the President spoke to the Nation, Medgar Evers, one of the leaders of the NAACP, was shot dead in the driveway of home returning from a civil rights meeting.

African-Americans began mobilizing as never before. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders, including A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, black leaders planned a massive protest in Washington in support of civil right legislation and economic opportunity. They met with President Kennedy, who initially was cool to the idea of a March on Washington because he was concerned, as were many, with the potential for violence and thought it would jeopardize passage of civil rights legislation.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place on August 28, 1963. A quarter of a million people jammed the Mall, streaming in by bus and train, walking up Capitol Hill from Union Station. At the Lincoln Memorial, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary and Mahalia Jackson performed for the massive crowds while millions more watched on television. Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” while Dylan sang “Only a Pawn in their Game” about the death of Medgar Evers.

But it was Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel” who sang just before Martin Luther King’s famous speech and who rocked the crowd with her famous rendition of “How I Got Over,” referring to the struggle of African-Americans to conquer slavery, racism, discrimination and injustice down through the centuries.

YouTube recording of Mehalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over” at the March on Washington on in 1963

The recording powerfully takes you back in time. You can see, hear and feel the enthusiasm of the crowd as it sways and claps with Mahalia to the rhythms of “How I Got Over.” And you begin to understand why, just a short time later, as Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech, he hesitated a moment, and from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just below the podium came a voice. It was Mahalia exhorting Dr. King to:

“Tell Them About the Dream, Martin”.

And so he did. In one of the most eloquent and enduring speeches in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King, departed from his prepared text, and clearly feeling the enthusiasm of the crowd, infused with the rhythms of righteousness in Gospel song, as if the Mall in Washington was grand church which is was on that day, lifted his voice and proclaimed:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

YouTube recording of Martin Luther King’s I Have and Dream Speech at the March on Washington in 1963

Later that year, in November, President Kennedy was assassinated, but his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, secured passage of the Civil Rights Act passed in June 1964. Even after passage of the Act, King continued to work on issues related to economic justice, housing segregation and poverty, and famously spoke out against the Vietnam War in a 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam.”

Dr. King himself was tragically assassinated in April 1968 around the time he was planning the “Poor People’s Campaign” to include an occupation of Washington, DC.

Today, much of Dr. King’s work remains unfinished, particularly on the economic front. More than a half century after his speech, far too many African-Americans and others continue to live in poverty, particularly in major cities of this country, denied basic rights to decent housing, education and health care, and often unjustly incarcerated because they are forced to live in poverty-stricken environments where crime and drugs prevail. We can address these issues, but it won’t happen with politics as usual. It will take another movement reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, one that picks up where Dr. King left off.

The greatest tribute we can pay to Dr. King is to carry on his work. Hopefully we are seeing the birth of that new movement today in the recent campaign of Bernie Sanders, the Black Lives Matter movement and others calling for a “revolution” in how this country addresses issues of race, poverty, injustice and economic inequality.

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King and Carrying On His Work

MartinLutherKing_CroppedIt’s 1963. In the spring of that year, Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Birmingham, Alabama police chief, unleashed high-pressure water cannons and police dogs on civil rights marchers, including children. By early June, George Wallace, the Governor, was standing on the steps blocking the admission of black students to the University of Alabama. After watching the scene at the University unfold on television earlier that day, President Kennedy addressed the Nation on his intent to introduce Civil Rights legislation guaranteeing African-Americans equal voting rights and an end to segregation. Sadly, the same night the President spoke to the Nation, Medgar Evers, one of the leaders of the NAACP, was shot dead in the driveway of home returning from a civil rights meeting.

African-Americans began mobilizing as never before. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders, including A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, black leaders planned a massive protest in Washington in support of civil right legislation and economic opportunity. They met with President Kennedy, who initially was cool to the idea of a March on Washington because he was concerned, as were many, with the potential for violence and thought it would jeopardize passage of civil rights legislation.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place on August 28, 1963. A quarter of a million people jammed the Mall, streaming in by bus and train, walking up Capitol Hill from Union Station. At the Lincoln Memorial, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary and Mahalia Jackson performed for the massive crowds while millions more watched on television. Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” while Dylan sang “Only a Pawn in their Game” about the death of Medgar Evers.

But it was Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel” who sang just before Martin Luther King’s famous speech and who rocked the crowd with her famous rendition of “How I Got Over,” referring to the struggle of African-Americans to conquer slavery, racism, discrimination and injustice down through the centuries.

YouTube recording of Mehalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over” at the March on Washington on in 1963

The recording powerfully takes you back in time. You can see, hear and feel the enthusiasm of the crowd as it sways and claps with Mahalia to the rhythms of “How I Got Over.” And you begin to understand why, just a short time later, as Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech, he hesitated a moment, and from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just below the podium came a voice. It was Mahalia exhorting Dr. King to:

“Tell Them About the Dream, Martin”.

And so he did. In one of the most eloquent and enduring speeches in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King, departed from his prepared text, and clearly feeling the enthusiasm of the crowd, infused with the rhythms of righteousness in Gospel song, as if the Mall in Washington was grand church which is was on that day, lifted his voice and proclaimed:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

YouTube recording of Martin Luther King’s I Have and Dream Speech at the March on Washington in 1963

Later that year, in November, President Kennedy was assassinated, but his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, secured passage of the Civil Rights Act passed in June 1964. Even after passage of the Act, King continued to work on issues related to economic justice, housing segregation and poverty, and famously spoke out against the Vietnam War in a 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam.”

Dr. King himself was tragically assassinated in April 1968 around the time he was planning the “Poor People’s Campaign” to include an occupation of Washington, DC.

Today, much of Dr. King’s work remains unfinished, particularly on the economic front. More than a half century after his speech, far too many African-Americans and others continue to live in poverty, particularly in major cities of this country, denied basic rights to decent housing, education and health care, and often unjustly incarcerated because they are forced to live in poverty-stricken environments where crime and drugs prevail. We can address these issues, but it won’t happen with politics as usual. It will take another movement reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, one that picks up where Dr. King left off.

The greatest tribute we can pay to Dr. King is to carry on his work. Hopefully we are seeing the birth of that new movement today in the campaign of Bernie Sanders, the Black Lives Matter movement and others calling for a “revolution” in how this country addresses issues of race, poverty, injustice and economic inequality.

 

Voices from the Past: John F. Kennedy on What It Means to be a Liberal

JohnFKennedy_ResizeThrough much of the late 1940’s and 1950’s, the U.S. was in a state of fear. The memories of the Great Depression and W.W. II were still fresh, but now Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was replacing Fascism as the next great threat. The Korean War was fought in 1950 through July 1953, highlighting the rise of Communist China. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg went on trial in 1951, accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. They were executed in 1953 in what many regarded as a legalized lynching. Shortly thereafter, a prominent member of the Rosenberg’s prosecution team, Roy Cohn, was appointed chief counsel to the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and, working for Senator Joseph McCarthy, helped lead the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 which further whipped the nation into a near frenzy of fear and suspicion. It was a low point when American liberties were tested, a time in which it was a de facto crime simply to associate with known “Communists”.

In those dark days, a little known junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, published a book in 1957, Profiles in Courage, which came through as a ray of sunshine.   Indeed, times were changing. The economy was improving and Americans were emerging from the shadows of the post-war period into a new era of optimism and hope. Kennedy’s book, which profiled senators down through history who stood up and fought for what they believed irrespective of the consequences, captured that new spirit and helped catapult Kennedy to the Presidency over Richard Nixon in 1960.

It is worth revisiting some of Kennedy’s words in Profiles In Courage (and later repeated in a 1960 speech) as we enter a moment in American history when fear and suspicion again seem to be triumphing over the American spirit of optimism and hope:

“If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal’, then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal’.”

Kennedy was not perfect. As if forgetting his own words, as President he took the country to the near brink of war over the Cuban missile crisis. And there were accusations that much of Profiles In Courage was ghost written. But there is no denying that Kennedy helped usher in a new, more optimistic period in American history, and that may be his greatest legacy and one worth remembering in times of crisis.

Kennedy’s words remind us that “liberalism” is not a dirty word, as some would have us believe, but a way of viewing the world that is inherently optimistic; that rejects fear mongering and embraces the role of government in serving the needs of people.

Voices from the Past: FDR and Lessons Learned on Leadership in Times of Crisis

fdr[1]In March, 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt exhorted the Nation to squarely face adversity and not succumb to fear.

Yet Roosevelt later presided over the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans and succumbed to an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in America by shutting the door on Jews seeking refuge in the U.S. to escape the ravages of the Holocaust.

Both are sad chapters in American history in direct contradiction to ideals of courage and leadership that Roosevelt so famously articulated in his first inaugural address:

This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.

So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear. . .is fear itself. . .nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.  I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

Roosevelt was a great president in many ways: a wartime leader; a champion of working men and women, of economic opportunity and civil rights, and his presidency coincided with some of the most challenging times in our history marked by massive economic depression and world war. In hindsight, Roosevelt’s words can both inspire and disappoint in light of how Japanese-Americans and Jewish refugees were treated on his watch.

The situation we face today may not be nearly as cataclysmic as World War II and the years leading up to it, but there are parallels. Today, as in Roosevelt’s time, we face great economic challenges, global conflict and huge numbers of refugees seeking to escape the ravages of war.

We have an opportunity to learn from our history; to not repeat mistakes of the past, and to extend a hand to those Mideast refugees who lives we helped destroy, and who now desperately need our help.

Voices from the Past: Bernie Sanders on What it Means to be Socialist

Bernie Sanders at the time of his election to the Senate from New Hampshire in 2006:

“Well, I think it (socialism) means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interests. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. And we are living in an increasingly undemocratic society in which decisions are made by people who have huge sums of money.  And that’s the goal that we have to achieve.”

–Sanders interviewed by Amy Goodman in Montpelier, Vt., for Democracy Now, the independent news programs.

(OK, Bernie, If that’s what it means to be a Socialist, where do we sign?)

Voices from the Past: The Military-Industrial Complex, Paranoia and the Inarticulate Poor

In 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly two thirds – 62% – of the Federal budget was devoted to military spending at a time when the U.S. is not actively engaged with troops on the ground in a major foreign conflict; only 38% of the federal budget was earmarked for non-defense programs such as education, health care and infrastructure investment.

The huge disparity in military v. civilian spending recalls prescient warnings from earlier times.

The Economist John Kenneth Galbraith:

“On the one side, powerful military bureaucracies, influential and richly financed weapons industries, their lobbies, their captive legislators, those for whom paranoia or past wars are a way of life,” Galbraith wrote. “On the other side, only reason, the will to survive, the inarticulate poor.”

Galbraith writing in 1978, as quoted in an August 28th New York Times Obituary on the passing of Ruth Sivard, an noted economist who focused on the disparities between military and social spending.

Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower:

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, January 1961