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Presidential Historian Jon Meacham Urges Educators to Prevail

  • LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Presidential biographer Jon Meacham had an urgent message for urban educators at the Council of the Great City Schools’ 63rd Annual Fall Conference, and that was to teach America’s children well, as the future of the republic depends on their learning the lessons of history.

    “You are the front line of democracy to whom -- no pressure -- ultimately the fate of the republic has been entrusted,” Meacham said early in his speech. “There’s nothing more American, more essential than our commitment, however uneven and however unrealized, to the education of the populace.”

    Meacham is a journalist and a historian who has written best-selling biographies of U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and George H.W. Bush. He suggested looking to the past to find parallels to the turmoil of present-day politics.

    There are past eras “that have felt just as bleak as this one,” he said, suggesting there is a danger in thinking there’s never been a time such as this, that present-day political strife is unprecedented. First, he said, examples from history suggest otherwise and, second, failing to honor the past means failing to “honor the people who fought and died and bled to get us to this point where we still believe this is a country and an experiment worth defending.”

    He recalled that a century ago, at the close of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson re-segregated the federal government, screened the white supremacist film “The Birth of a Nation” at the White House, and closed down newspapers with which he disagreed. The Ku Klux Klan also gained millions of members.

    But public opinion shifted: The NAACP, founded in 1909, grew in influence; civil rights advocates founded the American Civil Liberties Union, and the U.S. Supreme Court reined in authoritarian efforts.

    “Every action has a reaction, every reform has [a setback] because that is the American dialect,” said Meacham. “The forces that are with us now – the xenophobia, nativism, racism, extremism, a tendency to authoritarianism, a tendency to unthinking partisanship -- everything that’s shaping the world right outside that door-- are perennial American forces. They ebb and flow.”

    But the historian was emphatic in pointing out that “our better angels” likely will prevail, and he asked the audience to “think about who we build monuments to.”

    Meacham suggested that “as a nation, we tend to build monuments to people who have expanded opportunity, not to people who’ve limited it.” Offering examples, he asked, “Would you rather be Rosa Parks or George Wallace? Would you rather be [Maine Sen.] Margaret Chase Smith, who was the first person to stand up to Joe McCarthy, or Joe McCarthy?”

    According to Meacham, the election of 2016 represented a reaction to the demographic and political trends of the new millennium. “This country is changing,” he observed. “And I promise you that in thirty years’ time, this country is going to look a lot more like Barack Obama’s America than Donald Trump’s America.”