- Historic Sites
The American Century
The English journalist has spent more than a decade preparing a book on this country’s role in the most eventful hundred years since the race began. He liked what he found enough to become an American himself.
September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
A personal favorite would be P. D. East, who edited the tiny Petal Paper in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Here was a middle-aged Southern businessman running a local paper dependent on local trade and goodwill. He had no particular liberal impulses or any desire to be a racial crusader, but he found to his surprise that he just could not go along with his neighbors and customers in rebelling against the Supreme Court after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling on school segregation, in 1954. He felt the law of the land should be respected, period. He had no big resources, but he did have the weapon of humor. He turned the Petal Paper into a sheet satirizing the racists. It ruined his business. He had more subscribers in big cities than in his small hometown. But he would not give up. When I went to see him in 1956, he was wonderfully cheerful about a firebomb that had been thrown into his house the night before. Tremendous, unexpected courage in one individual trying to make a difference.
That brings up a running theme of the century, which is the fight for free speech.
Yes, it has been a constant struggle, but out of it our society emerges on a higher plane. Justice Murray Gurfein put it best in the Pentagon Papers case, when he said that a nation’s security is not only on the ramparts but in the values of a free society. Often the struggle is in the most unlikely places.
Take, for instance, the Watergate scandal. It had its beginnings in Nixon’s attempts to suppress the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers case in turn had its roots in Near v. Minnesota , the case of a violently anti-Semitic paper that the Minnesota legislature tried to suppress in 1927 for saying that certain politicians were involved with gangsters. The Supreme Court allowed it to keep publishing. It was really a terrible paper, a rag, but nonetheless the case laid the foundation for unprecedented freedom of expression. It made possible the publication of the Pentagon Papers, from which the country got to see just how we got into Vietnam. It made possible Sullivan v. The New York Times , in which an Alabama official tried to use a state libel law to silence civil rights protesters who had taken out an ad. All from that one noxious newspaper, which almost no one would have missed if it had dropped into a hole in the ground.
One is impressed by what a complicated thing democracy is, by how much participation and interaction it requires.
Certainly, and for long periods of our history, of course, many people were excluded from that participation. Indians, women, and blacks in particular. And now I think there is a strong argument to be made that we have gone down the wrong track by trying to rectify past injustices through the ascendancy of group rights and minority-preference programs.
The tensions between order and liberty, between opportunity and social justice will always be there, but that’s freedom, that’s normal. If this century has taught us anything, it is that we are not going to reach some Utopia on earth. The important thing is that the framework is there: the American framework that still promises freedom to everyone and not just to an elite or a particular class or caste. The fascinating thing is how the promise of freedom, just a little bit of freedom, always leads to a hell of a lot of freedom. Gorbachev always underestimated what freedom would be to Eastern Europe. It didn’t lead to a modified form of communism. You can’t modify totalitarianism any more than you can boil water without making steam. It led to a completely free society.
Freedom is indivisible then.
That’s right. Just look at the wave after wave of liberation movements that have swept over America during the past hundred years, all of them laying claim to the basic rights and privileges promised in the Constitution. You start with the Populists, at the turn of the century, and then you move on to the Progressives, the New Deal, the civil rights movement, women’s rights, Native American rights, gay rights. Whatever the group, freedom is always asserted in terms of one’s basic rights as an American citizen, and the remarkable thing is that it is usually won by the people themselves.
This was particularly true in the case of civil rights. There were plenty of people who saw the evils of racism in America in a theoretical way—white liberals, very perceptive academics, some politicians. They would debate what the best way would be to liberate African-Americans, through the white South itself or through Northern intervention. Even as great a writer as William Faulkner, who knew the evils of the Jim Crow South, thought that it would change only when whites became more enlightened. In the end the freedom was won by blacks themselves, through their enduring belief in freedom and their incredible individual courage.
Phrases such as individual courage aren’t heard that often from historians anymore. That brings up the old question, Is history made by impersonal demographic forces or by individuals? Or is this a false dichotomy?