Healing, Heritage and History:
"A MORE PERFECT UNION"
Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. began his service in the United States House of Representatives on December 12, 1995. He was sworn in as a member of the 104th Congress--the 91st African American to be elected to Congress. He was born in the midst of the voting rights struggle on March 11, 1965, and spent his 21st birthday in jail in Washington, D. C. for taking part in a protest against apartheid in South Africa. During the fall of 1997, Congressman Jackson and his staff toured many of America's Civil War battlefields, and observed, first-hand, how the National Park Service presents the story of the Civil War: From that experience, he introduced report language into the National Park Service appropriation budget that encouraged National Park Service Civil War park superintendents to expand the scope of their interpretation to include the discussion of such topics as slavery.
Introduced by Robert G. Stanton
Today, I want to share with you some of my life and speak to you out of my experience. While I hope to be intellectually sound and reflect accurate information, I rely on academics for much of my information, many of whom, like Dr. James McPherson and Dr. Eric Foner, I respect to the utmost. I am not a historian and I am not an academic. I am an activist and a practicing politician. I prefer to think of myself as a public servant but I am not naive about the profession I have chosen. I was not a history major in college. I did not know that much about the Civil War before corning to Congress. I visited my first Civil War battle site about three or four years ago. What I try to do is to reflect seriously on who I am, what is the context out of which I have come, and I also try to understand my surroundings and interpret them in a way that will better my community, even as it makes all Americans better.
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt shared the challenge of trying to interpret the significance of Selma, Alabama. Let me share with you my perspective on the importance of Selma. On Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, John Lewis, now Democrat from Georgia, 5th Congressional District, was beaten mercilessly for trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge for that fundamental American right, the right to vote. I was born March 11, 1965, four days after the event known as Bloody Sunday. On Tuesday, March 9, 1965, the Reverend James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Boston, Massachusetts, was hit in the head with a baseball bat and knocked unconscious by a white man in a small group, who attacked him and two of his friends. My father, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, sought to assist African Americans in the right to vote and arrived from Chicago to join Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on March 10th, for that right. The very day that I was born on March 11, 1965, the Reverend James Reeb died, never recovering from a coma. My father, who had been run out of Selma, stopped at a pay phone, and called my mother in Greenville, South Carolina, where he found out I was born. He was so overwhelmed by the history of that moment that he almost named me Selma. Thank God for my mother's better judgment.
On Sunday, March 21, 1965, Dr. King began a fifty-seven-mile-long voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. On Thursday, March 25, 1965, the march arrived in Montgomery. While transporting a marcher back to Selma that evening, Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, an Italian-American housewife and a mother of five in Detroit, Michigan, was shot in the head and killed on Highway 80. On August 6th of that year, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. I was, therefore, literally born in the middle of the voting rights struggle.
What does that tell you? It tells me that the bread that my parents had cast upon the water thirty-five years ago came back in the form of the ninety-first African American ever elected to Congress, out of a total of approximately 11,500 Americans who have served in the Congress of the United States. If this were a Baptist church this morning, I would tell you that is another way of saying that the seeds that my parents planted in the struggle for the right to vote came back in the form of elected fruit. It is another way of saying that the prayers that my grandmother prayed--keeping me safe for my graduation, for my success--were the substance of things hoped for. Because in her life--she was eighty-five years of age when she died--she never had the opportunity or the right to an education in America. She knew that her parents were slaves. She prayed that one day her prodigy in the next generation, might, like many of us, pray that our children would have a better opportunity to grow, to develop, to earn, and indeed to be granted our full citizenship rights. That is another way of saying that "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
My experience in Congress has been quite a diverse one. I learned very early on that politics in Congress has a lot less to do with Democrats and Republicans, left or right, liberal or conservative, and a lot more to do with North and South. When I first arrived in Congress, I sought a seat on the House Transportation Committee. There were three available seats on that occasion. A conservative member from my state, knowing that I wanted to provide economic opportunity and growth for my congressional district, fought very hard--even though we are in the same party--to keep me off that committee. He feared that if my district grew economically, that growth might have some kind of adverse impact on his district. And so, the very first fight that I confronted in the United States Congress was my liberalness versus his conservativeness, even though we were in the same political party. I thought we were going in the same direction. Shortly thereafter, I focused my attention on joining the House Appropriations Committee and other Democrats initially sought not to appoint me. Because Democrats have been losing seats in the South, those marginal Democrats, who essentially could be conservative Republicans, needed to be on strong committees in the United States Congress, so they could go back and tell their constituents that they were necessary to the Democratic agenda.
So, even though I had been in Congress longer than some members, they were appointed to the House Appropriations Committee over me because there was a compromise, if you will, to ensure they would have better electoral opportunities. I observed the voting patterns of members of Congress, many of whom vote more regionally and locally for their districts, rather than doing the party's business. I listened very carefully to the rhetoric, not only of Democrats but also of Republicans. And I wanted to know more about the underlying currents of this North-South political dynamic. I went on three different tours of Civil War sites in the eastern theater. Some of you knew at the time that I was a member of Congress, others did not. As I sought and probed answers to very difficult questions from some members of the National Park Service, many of those who did not know I was a member of Congress, informed me that in order to change their opinion about what they saw and did, it would take nothing less than an act of Congress.
So, less than one session later, I have given those folks their act of Congress. Now let me try to tell you my perspective once again. This time with the force of the law.
One point that I want to make is that while 11,000,000 people visit National Park Service Civil War sites, most Americans never get the opportunity. Either they do not have the time or the financial wherewithal to do what I did. I traveled to more than twenty sites throughout the country. Most Americans go to one site. Of the eleven million visitors, most of them are raised around one site, and, therefore, they never understand the sweep of events from Harpers Ferry through Appomattox Court House. One of our challenges was to ensure that if an American visited one site he or she would develop a full appreciation of the whole war. It is quite possible that one could visit, for example, the site at Appomattox and never hear the name John Brown or know anything about any of the other battles. And that, quite frankly, is a very limited and very narrow interpretation of that single site. Obviously, coming from the home which I came from, I understood that race was a problem in America. But only my experience in Congress, at the Civil War battle sites, and through my reading and thought, took me to a new level of seeing the depth and the breadth of the problem. I discovered during this period that race is the most central factor in American history. Race, I must tell you, is the lens through which I, as an African American, view American history.
Let me break it down into its three phases. I use the metaphor of an earthquake. Phase I--from 1619 to 1861--I refer to as the "tremor" phase of our nation's history. It is during that period that the Constitution of the United States was written. It is during that period that many states were created, predating the formation of the federal government. It is during that period that the racial compromises were instituted, of admitting one free state and one slave state into the Union to keep the balance of power in Congress, so that the federal government might have a fair chance of surviving. During part of this period, the Gag Rule was enacted, meaning that the issue of slavery and race was not to be discussed in the Congress at all. Thomas Jefferson observed during this period that: "When I think about the institution of slavery on the one hand and I think about God being a just God on the other, I shudder for my country." He felt what I felt.
Phase II I refer to as the "great quake" phase--from 1861 to 1865--the events that we have come now to know and appreciate as the American Civil War. Everything from 1865 to the present is Phase III, or what I call the "aftershock" period, forcing every generation to reflect upon the magnitude of the quake that almost cost us the nation. Racism or states rights, that is, states rights as a cover for racism, is a major reason prohibiting us from building a more perfect union. I like to use this particular metaphor-the earthquake example-because it is more instructive for defining the nature and scope of the problem than any other paradigm. Whatever you feel about Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, moderates on economic issues, or liberals and conservatives on social issues, no period in history is greater in defining who we see ourselves as today as the Civil War. Most Americans do not fully appreciate that who we are today and what we have become today was in response to fundamental questions, in which race was central. Whatever you feel about the great quake, the Civil War, pro-Union or pro-Confederacy, it has left us with Democrats and Republicans, liberals, conservatives and moderates. Thus we have a new paradigm. All we can conclude from that event is that when it comes to fundamental rights for all Americans--even in the year 2000--that paradigm has been unable to help us fundamentally build a more perfect union. That political paradigm is incapable of advancing fundamental rights for all Americans. So, into the interior bill, I introduced language to put the battles in a particular context. "The Civil War battlefields," the language reads, "throughout the country hold great significance, and provide vital historic educational opportunities for millions of Americans. There is concern, however, about the isolated existence of these Civil War battle sites in that they are often not placed in the proper historical context.
"The Service, to all of your credit, does an outstanding job of documenting and describing the particular battle at any given site, but in the public displays and multimedia presentations, it does not always do a similar good job of documenting and describing the historical, social, economic, legal, cultural, and political forces and events that originally led to the war which eventually manifested themselves in specific battles. In particular, the Civil War battlefields are often weak or missing vital information about the role that the institution of slavery played in causing the American Civil War. "The Secretary of the Interior is directed to encourage the National Park Service managers of Civil War battle sites to recognize and include in all of their public displays and multimedia educational presentations, the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War and its role, if any, at the individual battle sites. The Secretary is further directed to prepare a report to Congress on Dr. King's birthday, January 15,2000, on the status of the educational information currently included at Civil War sites that are consistent with and reflect this concern."
I believe that each of these sites provide us with a way out of our historical dilemma. I must also acknowledge that only from the perspective of an African American do we view history through the lens of race. But in order to be effective in our nation, we cannot be obsessed with that vision. We must also be able to interpret for all the American people a way out of the crisis of which all of us are the beneficiaries. That can be accomplished through the language of the economy and by turning up the hearing aid by which all Americans hear all political dialogue. I believe in the year 2000 that it is clear that the crisis will be resolved only when every American is: provided with economic security--employment, health care, education, and housing. From the African Americans' perspective, it would be perceived and considered a down payment on reparations, but that won't end racism. It does, however, give us the best chance of dealing with it. So how do we rise above liberalism and conservatism to build the progressive coalition we need to build a more perfect union?
Dr. James McPherson said that nearly all the first ten amendments to the Constitution apply the phrase "shall not" to the federal government. In fact, eleven of the first twelve amendments place limitations on the power of the national government. However, beginning with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, six of the next seven amendments radically expanded the power of the federal government at the expense of the states. Every one of them grants significant new powers to the government with the phrase "Congress shall have the power to enforce this article." We need to revive this tradition of positive amendments, which is what I propose to do.
Not long ago I proposed an amendment to the Constitution of the United States granting every American the right to an education of equal high quality. Not long ago, my father was in Decatur, Illinois. He was there to assist a group of students who were expelled from a local high school for two years for a fight they were alleged to have engaged in. When they filed a federal lawsuit, the federal judge in that particular case said in his holding that while the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the students had a very legitimate argument, in the final analysis he had to rely upon the Constitution of the United States in making his final determination. What he said--and I think this is very instructive as part of the lens that I have shared with you--is there is no constitutional right in America to an education. No constitutional right. I thought long and hard about that and I thought about the struggle to achieve an education in this nation for every American, including my grandmother who prayed that one day I might have the opportunity to serve. It occurred to me that there is nothing more fundamental in our nation than the right to an education. But why wouldn't all Americans agree that every American should have a constitutional right to an education?
My premise is that not all Americans can agree that every American should have the right to an education, unless, when they visit, for example, these battle sites, something about the interpretation makes the right to an education for all Americans part of the unfinished business of what occurred there. If we do not conclude that from these sites, then everything else becomes political and tactical. We just support one side versus the other side. But if there would be the right to an education of equal high quality we would no longer argue for vouchers. We would be arguing about a more competitive public school system where all Americans could indeed grow and make a difference. It means that there would be more taxpayers in the future, because more Americans with a better education could make progress. But, if the state government is under no obligation to provide an equal education, or funds this side of the state differently than that side of the state, there is no constitutional remedy for this school system. Thus, we cannot make progress going into the future for all Americans.
This is a factor in building a more perfect union. Such an amendment is an outgrowth of these series of events. Neither Mr. Gore nor Mr. Bush will ever advocate the right to an education for all Americans. Why is that? Because the experience of men who have run for the presidency and are elected has never been the experience of being denied of an education. Most Americans who have had a quality education, including myself, would agree that the right to an education is a more fundamental right than the right to have a gun. Yet the right to have a gun is in the Constitution but the right to an education is not. I happen to think that the right to health care is a more fundamental right than the right to have a gun. The right to health care of equal high quality is not in the Constitution, but the right to have a gun is. I think that if given the choice today, more Americans would actually support the right to health care, rather than the right to a gun in their homes. Only with the appropriate interpretation of these historical events--of the Civil War Era--can those Americans ever arrive at the right to a more perfect union through health care, through education, and through housing. Americans have essentially concluded that they will never get the right to health care from Democrats and they will never get it from Republicans. Liberals will always want to spend too much, conservatives never want to spend enough, and moderates will not want to spend it long enough. That is the paradigm that the war has left us.
The war, and the end of slavery, left us with the unresolved question of "how do we educate all of these people?" Liberals said they were entitled to an education that everyone else was entitled to. Conservatives said no, they needed to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. Moderates argued that they should be provided with an education for a limited period of time. Liberals argued that all races should live together; conservatives, that segregation forever was the best approach. They had the political power to enforce it, which led to Jim Crow, which was not overturned until Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954.
In reaction to Brown vs. the Board of Education, conservatives from Virginia to Texas essentially closed down their public educational institutions, opening private schools for their children. Why did they do this? They did this because there was no constitutional basis for providing an education for everybody. By the year 2000, the cost of that private education has become so expensive, that now they argue that vouchers are necessary. This is an outgrowth of our unwillingness to deal with the fundamental issue that every American is entitled to an education of equal high quality, which, in turn, is an outgrowth of the Civil War legacy.
Now, with historical hindsight, we actually know more about the Civil War--its battles, troop movements, and commanders--than we do about many of the individual characters who played roles in the events themselves. Their memoirs and diaries are of extreme importance and historical significance. We generally know far more about the lives and deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President John F. Kennedy, and the important personages of the 1960s than we do about the significant people of the 1860s. And so I want to offer a new paradigm, if I might. Here we stand in the year 2000. I represent a generation of Americans, black, white, Latino people of all colors and races in my congressional district, but I would like to think that I have influence beyond my congressional district. And almost everyone in this generation refers to what occurred in the 1960s as instructive for who they are. Dr. King, in the 1960s, looked not to himself for answers to the problem, he looked to the great quake--the Civil War period--for his response. In 1963, he stood in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial and told Congress that it had issued some Americans "a bad check." It had "come back marked insufficient funds."
Over 135 years after the Civil War, the liberal, conservative, moderate paradigm has failed to provide every American with the security of justice. There is money for Kosovo, there is money for aid to foreign nations, but there is not enough money to invest in education for every American. Dr. King constantly referred to the Civil War period. From Brown in 1954, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to the Open Housing Legislation of 1968, up until his assassination, this period is instructive and part of the aftershock phase of the nation's history. Those us who have had historical hindsight stand here in 2000 and look back over the past thirty-five years and see that we have made progress. But in the year 2000, over 45,000,000 Americans still do not have basic health care, so the traditional liberal, conservative, moderate paradigm obviously has not worked. Democrats today propose a patients' bill of rights, but that is only for people who have some for of health care already. Republicans want a medical savings account. You have to have a lot of money to have a medical savings account. So the number 45,000,000 is likely to grow to sixty to seven million, unless they are given the fundamental right that the paradigm from the Civil War has fail to provide them. Therefore, with this historical interpretation, we then begin to arrive at the unfinished business of what is necessary from these events to build a more perfect union for all American Let me close on one final example, because I am sure you have a number of questions.
Not long ago, three young white men dragged an African American man to his death in Texas. I saw African Americans and white Americans on television expressing their outrage over the significance of these events in 1998. They were horrible; I think all of us felt the same way. However, what I never heard from those events, was an interpretation that was helpful for us as a nation. But, I think I can share with you this new paradigm that might have made this event different. You have to drear with me for a moment. What the three white men and one African American had in common was that none of them had a college education. That is an economic issue. Remember now, the Africa American was hitchhiking. He needed a car. That is an economic issue. If there were lights on that road in Jasper, Texas on that occasion, it would have been a lot less dark. Lights on a road are an economic issue. Had there been more police on that road, it is quite likely that the African America might have survived the onslaught. That is an economic issue.
Imagine another world, where the three white gentleman and the one African American all ha single family homes, were college educated and had children in college. In other words, they were kind of like us. Even though they may have had deep racial resentment, in the final analysis, they would have been less likely to act upon that resentment because they would have had options in their lives. A relative degree of economic security may not change racism, but it puts all Americans in the position where they are not as likely to act upon their racism. Imagine a world, like my world, where we have more to lose when we say or do something wrong. Imagine a world where those men, the three white men and the one African American had a college education, were all earning $50,000 to $60,000 a year, and had a college or graduate school education. While they may not feel very comfortable living together, fundamentally the situation might have been different because the option of their lives were dictating something else--opportunity. It has the effect of changing their behavior. What failed was that the nation's history got them there. Democrat, Republican, liberal, and conservative have not invested in all Americans as they have invested in some Americans' lives to get them there.
Here is another paradigm for consideration. Let us put the nation's heart on an EKG machine and watch the wiggly line. The nation's heart continues to beat through the tremor phase of the nation's history. Then there is this great quake. Then everything is in aftershock from that point including the death of John F. Kennedy, the death of Bobby Kennedy, the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. But imagine for a moment, that, God forbid, four presidents in a row were assassinated. We would consider that period of American history to be horrible, and a huge event on the nations' EKG machine. But even after the fourth assassination, the nation's EKG would not register as large an event as the Civil War. This would force us to reflect upon the actual nature of just how big the Civil War was, meaning that every generation must look back and see what had us so divided on fundamental issues. So, now maybe it makes sense that the Confederate flag debate in South Carolina, the Confederate flag debate in Mississippi, or George W. Bush speaking at Bob Jones University are such dividing issues.
What also makes sense is the conflict between the federal government and states' rights, which continues today at the highest levels of government. At Gore said to the Congressional Black Caucus that the number one issue in 2000 is federalism. But when it came to Elian Gonzalez, he said it was a local issue and should have been handled in a state family court. At Gore says he is going to appoint Supreme Court justices who support federalism if he is elected to the presidency. But when the rubber hit the road, he said he was not going to enforce federal law. Or, how about Microsoft? The statement from Microsoft said that, while it understood the federal remedy, it was most disappointed that the federal prosecutors and the federal appellate court did not look at how Microsoft wanted to handle it behind each individual state's laws, not relying upon that which seeks to build a more perfect union. Certainly Windows is sold in all fifty states in the Union, but Microsoft sought a remedy behind the fifty different states' laws. So central to the scope of being able to address these remedies, is this event--the Civil War. The idea that there was and is legitimacy found in the states' rights argument in that this case arose from this event--the idea that there is remedy found in conservative economic thinking, around states' rights.
Everyone in this room might say "I am not a racist," and I am not using race for the purpose of beating anyone over the head. Race simply provides us with an insight into America that helps us see where the nation is going in this phase of the nation's history. We have immigrants who come into the country now. But the problem is when immigrants come here they become Republicans who are liberal on economic issues but not on social issues, or Democrats who are liberal on social issues but moderate on economic issues. They all join the paradigm that is part of an outgrowth of these events, where the question of race is central to understanding it. I have been trying to build an airport in my congressional district because there are only about 11,000 jobs for the 600,000 constituents whom I represent. Therefore, I have about sixty people in my congressional district for every one job. On the other hand, Henry Hyde's district--in just one community in his district--there are 35,000 people and 100,000 jobs in that one community. So, they have three jobs for every one person. I want to build a third airport. I say to Mr. Bush and to Mr. Gore, let's get the FAA moving on doing a study for balanced economic growth and what an airport could do in our area. They say no, the local mayor is in charge of the FAA in Chicago. The problem with not building a new airport in my congressional district, however, has the broader effect of re-segregating the city of Chicago. Out by O'Hare Airport in the northwest suburbs, there are all whites--Democrats and Republicans--living near the economic opportunity; while on the south side of Chicago and the south suburbs that I represent, people are poorer and blacker. I am arguing for more social programs; my colleagues are arguing for more tax breaks. All are part of the dynamic that this event--the Civil War--created for contemporary American politics.
When I go to Vicksburg or Manassas, or any other battle site, I ask what is the historical significance of this particular site. The park service superintendent responds saying right here was a left oblique and right there was a right oblique. So, the historical significance of Vicksburg is about an oblique. After all that I have just shared with you, is the historical significance about military history or a military view of these sites? At these sites, nothing tells us that there were no more Federalists or Whigs, and the Democratic Party was split in two, North and South, because of slavery after Lincoln won, or that we ended up with a two party system, Democrats and Republicans, based on the legacy of slavery. Nor is there anything to say that Lincoln ran on a certain campaign platform, and that South Carolina and other southern states said that if he won they would leave the Union. Then, when Lincoln took office he said he would put eleven stars back on that flag. All that has more to do with the history of Vicksburg and Manassas than a left or a right oblique.
Better yet, if the history of Vicksburg is about obliques, maybe Congress should pass another bill eliminating the National Park Service Civil War battlefields and just turn them over to the Army. They can explain obliques better than you guys. The history of the site is not about an oblique. In fact, that is why the federal government is there, to offer an interpretation of the site that is broader than left and right obliques, or why Pickett decided to charge across the field into cannon fire. As Garry Wills has suggested in his marvelous book on the Gettysburg Address, the interpretation of Gettysburg battlefield has most to do with redefining the nation in the context of the Declaration of Independence rather than in the context of the Constitution. Both sides had found legitimacy in the imperfect Constitution. The southerners said they had a constitutional right not to be in the Union; northerners said the South did not have a constitutional right to leave. All used the Constitution as the basis for these arguments. So Lincoln, at Gettysburg, five months after the battle, said all people were created equal and endowed by their creator with certain rights. He did not rely upon that which was disagreed upon. He defined a new America from that moment forward. In fact, July 4, 1863 has more to do with the stripes on the flag than does July 4, 1776. So, because of the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the northern troops were able eventually to put the southern states' stars back on the flag. So on July 4th, when Americans are waving the American flag, they are celebrating--even though we have not told them yet--what occurred at Gettysburg.
Some people have said to me that we are losing some of our real estate and many of our Civil War battlefields to urban sprawl. Well, if the stories at these historical places are broadly interpreted and every American truly feels that the history represents them, there will be a much greater chance of saving these sites than talking about obliques. Let's look at Kennesaw Mountain as an example. It was a Confederate victory, or at least a Confederate slowing of the Union forces. It is maintained by the National Park Service and it draws about a million visitors a year. However, the City of Atlanta and its suburbs are sprawling. It might grow all the way out to Kennesaw Mountain. Well, if I were an African American mayor of Atlanta, or an African American politician, I would not care if it went all the way up Kennesaw Mountain and became a middle class African American community. However, if the story of Kennesaw Mountain were told in a broader interpretation, then even the African American who goes to Kennesaw can appreciate its historical significance. Then Atlanta would likely expand around but not up Kennesaw Mountain.
There would be no need for me to even get into the politics of what we know to be obvious, when one starts arguing whether or not this history is legitimate versus that history. But if the site is maintained by the government and has a broader interpretation where everyone finds their story and finds meaning in that site, the visitation will double or triple. But when I went to Kennesaw, they were only selling Confederate paraphernalia. They weren't even selling Union paraphernalia. Well, that can't possibly encourage a broader audience at the site. And, when I went inside, the story mentioned nothing else about the rest of the war, but just about Kennesaw Mountain and what happened there militarily. So Kennesaw isn't about the Civil War. If my children visit Kennesaw, and other American children visit Kennesaw, they should leave with more information than simply what happened there.
Some of us argue that the best historical recollection of a site is what a soldier from Pennsylvania or Tennessee had to say about it. So we go to the diary and interpret the battle and war from his point of view concerning what occurred at that particular site. That is the personalized interpretation of the site. Well, then, that's what happened at the site according to that one soldier and his or her interpretation. I understand that he was not fighting for slavery and that he did not own slaves. But, since we are interpreting for the whole nation a series of events, we can't just rely upon his interpretation of that event. So, if that is true, then my diary or the diary of somebody who served in Vietnam is what we should use to explain Vietnam. It had nothing to do with Kennedy, nothing to do with Johnson, nothing to do with domino theory, nothing to do with stopping communism. Instead it had something to do with the diary of the soldier who was in Vietnam who said he wanted a job and signed up with the military and ended up in Vietnam. Thus Vietnam is what he says about it. When we look through the history of Vietnam seriously, we look to what Kennedy had to say, we look to what Johnson had to say, we look to what Nixon had to say, we look to what the communists in Vietnam had to say about it. We then conclude we lost 58,000 American lives on this political mission. So, why is it when we go to the Civil War sites, we don't look to what Jefferson Davis had to say, or what Alexander Hamilton Stevens had to say, or what Lincoln had to say about it? Somehow we find comfort in elevating what the individual soldier had to say about it.
I hope that what I have shared with you today is something that is a broader based interpretation, that has great implications for saving and preserving the battle sites for all Americans. But it also has great implications for defining the future of what Americans should be fighting for and what they should be expecting from their federal government. There are those who are arguing in the Congress of the United States that these Park Service sites are better controlled under local flexibility and control. If they are successful, then all of you who work for the Park Service are coming back to Washington and we will find something else for you to do. However, if our efforts are successful, then these Park Service sites should be maintained in such a way that all Americans can feel the very nature of their story.
Today in our society, women still earn seventy cents to the dollar of what men make. Yet, they can't buy bread cheaper, they can't pay rent cheaper. From my perspective, we need to amend the structure of America to ensure that every woman has equal rights. That comes from that event. Forty-five million Americans still have no health care. Those Americans are not covered by any Democratic proposal or any Republican proposal, any liberal proposal or any conservative proposal or any moderate proposal. Those Americans were born here just like everybody else. They are entitled to the same rights under the Constitution, and that will only come from changing the structure of America, by guaranteeing that fundamental right. These rights come from that series of events called the Civil War.
Questions and Answers*
Question: As we are looking at interpretation in our Civil War battlefields and trying to do the best we can to expand what we do and make sure what we say is appealing to all Americans--not just the 11,000,000 who come to our battlefields--one of the criticisms that we receive is that if we start talking about things like slavery, we will diminish what we have done in the past--the right obliques and left obliques. What will happen is that our military history will be diminished and that is a great concern from a lot of our customers. Do you have a response to that?
Answer: Civil War history is probably the most written about subject in the world, because of its great implications not only for our nation but for other countries around the world. I guess my argument would be that there is no shortage of the military history of those events. We have the accounts of the individuals who participated in the events themselves. If you go to Gettysburg and a number of the sites around the country, you actually see physical markers of these events and there are sufficient diaries that have been written on that actual military history. As a matter of fact, one thing I can say without much equivocation is that there will not be much improvement upon what the actual people from their first-hand experience had to say about the military history of those events. So, there is a sufficient detailed history of these military events. There is not a sufficient detailed history of everything else that I have shared with you. And the absence of that history, I am suggesting, requires a certain lens to be able to see the implications of what occurred in those events with hindsight and what they have led us to in contemporary America.
Question: Would you support a similar provision to interpret me context for me Revolutionary War as well? This was a struggle mat set forth me ideal--not realized--that all men are created equal?
Answer: I can't, on its face, see opposition to such instruction. However, I have not studied me Revolutionary War as I have put time and attention to this. So I would not want to make a commitment one way or me oilier without an understanding of those series of events mat would be worthy of something that would be instructive to the Park Service. So, whoever wrote the question, if you are willing to work with me on this and help broaden my understanding of that I would be more than willing to do whatever I could do to broaden my understanding.
Question: You never worked in a Civil War park, nor do you have experience in historical interpretation. You admit you are not a historian but a politician and an activist, in that you did not take an interest in the Civil War until four years ago. On the other hand, National Park Service historians in the audience have perhaps 2000 years in Civil War knowledge and experience. Given these facts why do you feel that you are qualified to impose your views of Civil War interpretation on the National Park Service?
Answer: I don't quite see my views as an imposition on the National Park Service, but consistent with what one of the directors of one of the sites shared with me--the will of the people, an act of Congress. So now that we have an act of Congress, that is the will of the people. At one level or another, the will of the people is at the site to interpret its broader implications and put it in historical context. That is much broader than left and right obliques. An act of Congress created the Department of the Interior and an act of Congress created the National Park Service. Furthermore, an act of Congress created your job and an act of Congress decided that local as well as state municipalities would not encroach upon this space because an act of Congress determined this space to be sacred. So, acts of Congress, long before I got to Congress, created these sites and made determinations about how these sites would be shaped to keep local governments and state governments from encroaching upon these sites. Acts of Congress also are responsible in one way or another for the interpretation.
I was in Andersonville. While it has great historical significance and holds a significant role in the history of nation, Andersonville is now the site of the National Prisoner of War Museum--through an act of Congress. However, if we want millions of visitors to learn anything about prisoners of war, why wouldn't we have the National Prisoner of War Museum in Washington where people come from all over the world to learn about national events of national significance? But an act of Congress, a political determination by the congressman of that district and the senator from that state, informed Lyndon Johnson that the history of Andersonville had great implications for that member of Congress and that senator's role in Washington and in advocating things for their state. So they didn't seek to change the history of Andersonville, they just simply sought to modify it by putting the National Prisoner of War Museum at that location. I happen to think that Andersonville has nothing to do with prisoners of war in Vietnam, has nothing to do with prisoners of war in Korea, and has nothing to do with prisoners of war in World War I or World War II, which the site now clearly explains and makes clear. Those events are central to the nation and are central to Washington, D. C. Andersonville is about--if you are talking about historical accuracy--what my colleagues in Congress want it to reflect.
I am not trying to do that at all. I am simply saying that through the nation's history, one inescapable issue is the issue of race. Moreover, it is a factor in every event from 1619 through and beyond even the impeachment of Bill Clinton. If those sites want to grow and be preserved for generations, they need to do a better job of interpreting these series of events and the role that they played.