People need declarative markers that denote occasions punctuating their lives. They desire ways to document their personal stories. They want to chronicle critical events that serve to illuminate their existence ― whether good or bad.
That’s why a law quietly passed by Congress last week about the Civil Rights Movement is so meaningful ― not only for African-Americans, but for the nation and how we think about our democracy as a rich civic tapestry.
The Civil Rights Movement is more than five decades old. For many Americans the movement may well represent ancient history, a bygone era of racial murders and martyrs, menacing police, and high-minded agitators seeking civic justice.
But House Resolution 1927 is an act speaking to acknowledge collective American history as a pretext of better understanding the dimensions of our ongoing national narrative.
Called the African American Civil Rights Network Act of 2017 the “legislation directs the Secretary of the Interior to identify and create a national network of historic sites, stories, research facilities and educational programs connected to the modern African American civil rights movement,” according to Congressman William Clay (Mo), who sponsored the legislation.
The politics of Washington D.C. these days are clearly mired in partisan confrontation that results in nothing. Our president presides over an administration suffering from acute policy inertia. Incivility has precluded the production of meaningful legislation.
Against this backdrop, a law about the salience about our civic memory is important because it allows us to identify the trajectory of our social development.
The reality is that Civil Rights Movement was the result of thousands of acts of resistance the spanned nearly twenty years. Acts of heroism cumulatively created the movement that took place in small towns and cities throughout the South in the 1950s and 60s in such places as St. Augustine, Florida and Albany, Georgia, Mobile, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee.
Many of those freedom fighters were unheralded preachers, school teachers, garbage workers, students, volunteers from northern colleges and organizers from hamlets and big cities across the mid-west. They sought to register to vote when the current customs made it difficult. They organized to integrate public transportation, hospitals and bring an ending to public restrooms segregated by race.
Myopically, Americans unfortunately often see the Civil Rights Movement as one massively coordinated event. The iconic names of Thurgood Marshall, Bayard Rustin and Fannie Lou Hamer often come to mind.
But it is essentially the quiet work of unsung Americans -- white and black, young and old -- who Congressman Clay fears losing.
“Across this great country, precious historic waypoints along the routes of that still largely untold story are at risk of being lost forever. My hope is that the historic civil rights trails and the programs that will grow from this act will honestly tell the full and sometimes painful story of the struggle for civil rights,” said Clay in a press release statement last week.
What’s clear is that the Civil Rights Movement is a definitive part of American history. The movement is filled with facts, events and the lives of people who contributed to broadening our definition what it means to live in a participatory democracy. To neglect the many stories that comprise the features of the movement is tantamount to ignoring history. It would be like squandering vital information that makes up our political culture.
If we want to know the triumphs in our democracy to the fullest, we should feel compelled to preserve the history of our country in exacting detail.
It's critical that we engage our struggles as well as the successes. If we do this, we will find ourselves better able to recognize the historic contours of our nation.