Americans are arguing of late about their history — about whether to look at it primarily as good or bad, uplifting or oppressive. The reality is that our nation’s past is, of course, a mixture of great positives but also unsettling negatives. Our schools and universities have an obligation to present a full picture, hiding neither the injustices nor the achievements.
How much one aspect — the positives, the negatives — should be emphasized will depend on a person’s perspective. There will always be room to disagree.
But there’s also considerable room for agreement, if people make the effort to look for it. Let’s consider some examples, first on the positive side, then the negative.
Were the men who crafted our founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution — perfect individuals? No. But that doesn’t remove the fact that the constitutional foundation they ultimately laid stands as an extraordinary advancement in world history, with enduring value for each new generation of Americans.
Consider: In 2021, Americans, if they choose, have the ability to voice furiously harsh criticism of government leaders. That’s in contrast to countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Belarus, where a mere tweet or TikTok video can be “justification” enough for authorities to throw the individual in jail. In 2021, Americans have the ability to peacefully assemble and call for political and cultural change. That’s in contrast to countries such as the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where authorities last weekend outrageously failed to stop hooligans from brutally assaulting peaceful marchers who were standing up for LGBTQ rights.
Our country safeguards such rights for Americans because of a pre-eminent creation of the founding generation: the First Amendment, safeguarding freedom of speech and the right to assembly.
That amendment also enshrined freedom of religion — an enormous step forward, in contrast to the centuries of upheaval in Europe over the issue. The First Amendment also ensures freedom of the press, which prevents newspapers and other media organizations from the kind of heavy-handed government control seen in countries such as China.
In 2021, everyone can agree that these freedoms, secured by the Constitution, are vital. We also can agree about the long-standing injustice by which many of those freedoms were denied to Americans in the past because of their race or ethnicity.
Recent scholarship by Leslie A. Schwalm, a professor of history at the University of Iowa, provides some useful examples of past injustices. In 1855, Martha Reno, a widowed, 40-year-old Black woman in Iowa City, refused to pay a newly instituted tax for school construction. Why did she protest? Her cause was just and righteous: She refused to pay the tax because the schools were Whites-only. They would not accept her daughter.
Local authorities backed off from their demand because, as it turned, Reno had the law on her side: Iowa law said that Black residents could not be taxed for Whites-only schools.
Our country must promote educational opportunity across the full breadth of our population. Denying children an education because of their skin color is profoundly unjust.
Everyone in 2021 can agree on that. That’s why it’s appropriate to know about Martha Reno and school conditions in her time. Such historical understanding informs us about important national values and strengthens present-day resolve to safeguard them.
Here is another example from Schwalm’s studies. Following the Civil War, one of the most influential social organizations in the Midwest was the Grand Army of the Republic, the fraternal organization for Union veterans. The GAR repeatedly figures prominently in descriptions of Iowa and Nebraska history in the late 1800s. Yet, in the 1890s, Schwalm writes, black veterans living in Newton, Iowa, were denied membership when they tried to join the local GAR post.
That was a disgrace. Those soldiers had faced enormous danger in the defense of freedom. Our military should extend respect and opportunity to Americans of all backgrounds. That applies to veterans organizations, too. Everyone in 2021 can agree on that. And so we can agree on the importance of understanding this part of our history.
Nebraska’s past offers useful examples. In the late 1800s, Nebraska business establishments could refuse to serve people on the basis of skin color. State Rep. Matthew Ricketts of Omaha — the first Black member of the State Legislature — argued for state action to end that discrimination, and he succeeded. State law, authored by Ricketts, prohibited such injustice, starting in in 1893. Ricketts pursued another worthy goal, legalizing interracial marriage. He introduced a bill on the issue, and it passed the Legislature in 1895. But Gov. Silas Holcomb successfully vetoed it. In 1963, State Sen. Edward R. Danner, representing District 11 in North Omaha, introduced similar legislation, and it became law.
Everyone in 2021 can agree that it’s wrong to allow businesses to discriminate against customers on the basis of race, or for the state to use race as justification to deny people the ability to marry the one they love.
Just as everyone can agree on the importance of understanding our past, in its complete fullness.
There’s considerable room for agreement, if people make the effort to look for it.