Thursday, February 23, 2012

Breaking new ground in racial history -- Feb. 23, 2012 column


Exactly 150 years ago this month, while the Civil War raged, the Smithsonian Institution opened its doors for a series of abolitionist lectures.

Among the prominent speakers were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horace Greeley. Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, made an impassioned plea to end slavery, turning repeatedly to face one person in particular. President Abraham Lincoln was less than pleased to be lobbied in public.

Frederick Douglass was scheduled as the final speaker in the series. Times being what they were, though, the secretary of the Smithsonian balked. Joseph Henry could not bring himself to allow a black man to speak in the rooms of the Smithsonian. The invitation to the most influential African American orator of the day was withdrawn.

Richard Kurin, undersecretary for history, art and culture at the Smithsonian, told the sad tale Wednesday at the ground-breaking ceremony for the National Museum for African American History and Culture on the National Mall.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only time the Smithsonian showed great racial insensitivity. When the National Zoo opened in 1891, it allowed African Americans to visit only on Easter Monday. For years, curators routinely excluded African American history from the museum’s exhibits.

But there is a happy ending.

With this building, Kurin said, as President Barack Obama looked on, “Frederick Douglass’ words will certainly be heard in the rooms of the Smithsonian.”

And so too will be heard the voices of slaves and civil rights activists, singers and soldiers, preachers and presidents.

The museum – the 19th in the Smithsonian’s solar system – will tell stories some of us will find hard to hear, but the hope is that we will grow stronger as a nation from knowing our past.

Representing the fulfillment of many dreams, the museum was first proposed by black veterans of the Civil War and was championed for 15 years by civil rights leader and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

Lewis patiently battled Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who blocked the legislation. Helms insisted that it was too costly and besides if the government built a museum for black history, it would have to build one for Hispanic history and Asian history.

Congress finally approved the African American museum after Helms retired in 2003, and George W. Bush signed the bill into law. It is scheduled to open in 2015 between the Washington Monument and the American History Museum, not far from where slave pens once traded human property. The $500 million tab is being split between taxpayers and donations.

The museum ceremony reminded that the civil rights era is fading fast into history. Lewis, 82, is the last living speaker from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which drew 250,000 people to the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963. He was 23 then and national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” he said Wednesday, stressing that the museum must tell the whole story of 400 years of African American history, from slavery to the White House, “without anger or apology.”

“There’s still a great deal of pain that needs to be healed,” he said.

Using technology and a vigorous outreach program, the museum hopes to open dialogue and foster racial reconciliation. But at its heart are the memories -- some painful, some triumphant -- it will keep alive.

“Just as the memories of our earliest days have been confined to dusty letters and faded pictures, the time will come when few people remember drinking from a colored water fountain or boarding a segregated bus or hearing in person Doctor King’s voice boom down from the Lincoln Memorial,” Obama said.

“That’s why what we build here won’t just be an achievement for our time, it will be a monument for all time,” the president said, noting that he wants his daughters and the millions of others who will visit the museum in years to come to see the story of black America as part of the larger American story.

“I want them to see how ordinary Americans could do extraordinary things, how men and women just like them had the courage and determination to right a wrong,” he said.

The museum, he said, “should remind us that although we have yet to reach the mountaintop, we cannot stop climbing.”

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

When 'free ride' on health care became conservative -- Feb. 16, 2012 column


When Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney signed his state’s health care plan in 2006, requiring everyone to buy insurance, he bragged that the free ride was over.

“The Republican approach is to say, `You know what? Everybody should have insurance. They should pay what they can afford to pay. If they need help, we will be there to help them, but no more free ride,’” Romney told Neil Cavuto on Fox News.

Romney cast his plan as the ultimate conservative idea, but this was before Barack Obama was elected president, before Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, before the anti-government folks rattled politicians’ tea cups. In 2012, Romney’s leadership in promoting personal responsibility has made him the GOP’s piƱata.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it also can be political death-making. Romney’s presidential campaign has suffered because President Obama’s health-care law also shuts down the free ride on health care. Obama requires most people to buy insurance by 2014 or pay a tax penalty.

Romney still tries to sell the mandate to buy insurance as a conservative idea, but Rick Santorum has surged by whacking continuously at the Massachusetts law and by linking Romney with Obama.

Damning it as the “stepchild of Obamacare,” Santorum says that requiring people to buy health insurance is nothing short of an assault on personal liberty – and there’s “no greater issue in this race than freedom.” Whoa, the freedom to freeload?

There’s a difference between campaigning and governing. While Congress and the Republican candidates bash “Obamacare” for political gain, the ranks of the uninsured continue to grow. About 50 million Americans now lack insurance. Some have lost jobs and benefits in the recession while others are working for employers who have dropped health benefits.

And so, as Mitt Romney said back in 2006, we already have socialized medicine. People who lack insurance still get sick and in car accidents and wind up in the emergency room where they get care. Taxpayers and the people with insurance foot the bills.

Romney’s and Obama’s health laws are attempts to bring people into the system to rein in costs and improve access to care.

Interestingly, none of the legal challenges to the federal law dispute the basic fact that the nation faces a crisis in health care cost and access.

Today Massachusetts has the highest level of health insurance coverage in the country, and, here’s a surprise, “Romneycare” enjoys widespread support. Almost two-thirds of state residents like the Massachusetts plan, according to a new survey for WBUR, a public radio station in Boston. The finding is consistent with previous surveys over the years.

Until 2009, Gallup polls found that large majorities of Americans believed government had a responsibility to make sure Americans had health care coverage. About half of us still believe it.

And, while most Americans hate the idea of socialized medicine, one in four Americans now get their health care through government programs -- Medicare, Medicaid, military and veterans’ benefits. They just don’t think of themselves as receiving government health care. Who can forget the protesting seniors waving signs that read “Keep Your Hands Off MY Medicare.”

One in two Americans favor repeal of the Affordable Care Act, polls tell us. At the same time, young people, now eligible to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, are getting coverage as never before. The Census Bureau estimated that at least half a million people 18 to 24 have gotten coverage under the law.

All the Republican presidential candidates favor speedy repeal of Obama’s plan, if the Supreme Court doesn’t do it first. The court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the law in June.

Santorum insists that Romney is the “worst possible person” to confront Obama on the health care issue in the fall, because he “built the largest government-run health-care system in the United States.”

Romney, who could argue he has the experience to work with Democrats as he did in Massachusetts, instead says that what was good for Massachusetts isn’t good for the whole country.

Promising “no free rides” may have been a conservative concept, but in 2012 it’s too liberal for a Republican seeking his party’s presidential nomination.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Whose American values? Obama, GOP battle it out -- Feb. 9, 2012 column


Unemployment is dropping, and President Barack Obama’s job approval rating has edged above 50 percent – welcome news for his re-election bid.

But here’s another number that’s hazardous: 54. That’s the percentage of Americans who don’t have a clear idea what Obama would do in a second term. Only 43 percent have a clear idea, according to a New York Times-CBS News poll last month.

One of the things presidents do, wrote the late journalist R.W. Apple Jr., is “redefine what people mean when they say `American values,’ selecting some strands from the national experience and rejecting others, reweaving them into a new fabric and exhorting the people to clothe themselves in it.”

Apple’s analysis ran in The New York Times on Jan. 20, 1989, the day President George H.W. Bush was inaugurated. The process of redefining American values “begins in earnest on the day the presidential baton is passed,” Apple wrote.

Bush the elder never was good at what he dismissed as “the vision thing.” His four years in the White House had lofty peaks and low valleys, and he lost the White House largely because he couldn’t tell the story of where he wanted to lead the country as well as the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.

In the current campaign, the Republican presidential hopefuls opine endlessly about the need to restore American values. They promise less government and more freedom, a formula that worked for Ronald Reagan. But will it again?

Rick Santorum was the week’s victor times three, sweeping contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. He doesn’t just want to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney but to Obama, whom Santorum accuses of trying to turn America into France. And he doesn’t mean we’re headed for high fashion and great food.

The November election will be a referendum on Obama’s policies and on his vision. If Romney is the Republican nominee, Obama will need to distinguish his American values from those of the “Massachusetts moderate” whose policies were similar.

Many Obama voters wonder what happened to the Obama who articulated American values so well at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 that he leapfrogged Hillary Clinton and was elected president just four years later.

In 2004, Obama addressed those who would divide the country. “Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

As president, Obama has not redefined American values so much as he has provoked their reassessment. He has just begun telling the story of where he would lead the country in a second term.

“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” he said in his State of the Union address.

Obama gets another opportunity to outline his vision Monday when he sends his fiscal 2013 budget to Congress. The president’s budget routinely is dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, but it’s his chance to put his money where his priorities are, even in a year that’s more about belt-tightening than expanding.

Obama has pitted himself against an unpopular Congress; only 10 percent approve of the way Congress handles itself, according to a a Gallup poll this week. He is resurrecting proposals Congress has already rejected, including raising taxes on millionaires and spending more on infrastructure.

No presidential candidate, incumbent or not, wants to receive the harsh criticism columnist George Will leveled at Vice President Bush when Bush was running for president: “He does not say why he wants to be there, so the public does not know why it should care if he gets his way.”

Shortly after he took office, Obama set the standard for his own presidency.
“If I don’t have this done in three years, then this is going to be a one-term proposition,” the new president told NBC’s Matt Lauer.

Obama’s job in the next few months is to convince voters that he -- and his American values -- deserve more time.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Smithsonian finally shines light on Jefferson, slavery and liberty -- Feb. 2, 2012 column


Searching for the right words to condemn slavery, Thomas Jefferson called it an “abominable crime,” a “hideous blot” and “moral depravity.” Yet he owned slaves all his life.

Nor was Jefferson alone. Twelve of the first 18 American presidents were slave-owners.

For most of our nation’s history, Americans have swept these uncomfortable historical facts under the red, white and blue rug. Some have romanticized Jefferson and the rest of the founding fathers while others have regarded them with cold-eyed contempt.

Finally, a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington focuses with compassion on the inherent contradictions of a nation that was founded on the lofty ideals of liberty and freedom while it relied on the institution of slavery.

“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” open through Oct. 14, neither celebrates Jefferson nor makes him into a monster. The sponsors -- the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is slated to open on the National Mall in 2015, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, where a companion exhibit also explores slavery -- present an ugly, painful era with calm sensitivity.

I draw heavily here from the exhibit in Washington and the web site, www.

Jefferson owned about 600 slaves over the years, and his life and theirs were intimately intertwined. Slaves helped build his beloved home at Monticello, tended his crops, ran his household, made his furniture, cooked and served his meals, almost certainly gave birth to his babies, cared for his children and grandchildren, comforted him as he lay dying and then dug his grave. Enslaved children and adults worked six days a week, sunrise to sunset.

The exhibit displays items handed down in the Jefferson family that portray an active life of the mind – the revolving bookcase on which Jefferson could keep five books at a time to appease his “canine appetite” for reading, his silver spectacles from Philadelphia, his inkwell in the shape of Voltaire’s head and his silver-and-gold fountain pen.

It’s jarring to turn to the sad remnants of slave life also on display. Iron shackles, called bilboes, from slave ships come in two sizes – for the ankles of children and adults. The nails made by boys just 10 years and up who crashed their hammers 20,000 times a day. A few buckles and fragments of ceramics are all that’s left of personal belongings.

Slavery in the New World started as a trickle and grew to a flood. In 1660 only a fraction of Virginia’s planters held slaves, and white indentured servants worked the tobacco fields. But by 1700 slaves worked the fields instead.

No doubt the growth was fueled in part by those born and bred into slavery. The Virginia Slavery Act of 1662 declared that children would be slave or free “only according to the condition of the mother.”

When Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, declaring that “all men are created equal,” one of every five men, women and children in the “free and independent states” were slaves.

If the exhibit did no more than explain Jefferson’s ties to slave labor and what slaves’ lives were like, it would deliver a strong, if depressing, dose of American history, but the exhibit turns the corner to offer a hopeful look at slave descendants’ struggle to make Jefferson’s ideals real for everyone.

Since 1993, researchers at Monticello’s “Getting Word” oral history project have interviewed almost 200 slave descendants. The exhibit highlights six families, including that of Elizabeth Hemings, whose daughter Sally likely was the mother of four of widower Thomas Jefferson’s five children.

Descendants of the slave families served in the Civil War, formed and led churches and businesses, and, imbued with the love of learning, became teachers and professors.

As for Jefferson, despite finding slavery abhorrent, he never freed his slaves, and his will granted freedom to only a handful. He died deeply in debt, his 130 slaves sold with his other property at auction, tearing apart families that had served him for generations.

“You don’t know who you are until you know where you came from,” says a descendant in the exhibit’s video. Amen.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.