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June 24, 2010



To the editor:

In the June 10, 2010, edition of the University Times, the featured article, “Racism is alive and well,” on Julian Bond’s keynote address, “The Road to Freedom: From Alabama to Obama,” provides an opportunity to examine tension within the narrative on the long struggle for social justice and equal rights in America, and demonstrates the importance of history as an academic discipline in shaping our understanding of our national identity as Americans.

The tension in the historical narrative is evident in the emphasis that one places on each milestone that is crossed, symbolic or otherwise, toward racial progress in America. In the struggle against racial discrimination against African Americans, for example, one narrative sees each accomplishment as a victory for black people, while another narrative sees each accomplishment as a victory for the “progressive” character of American society. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but they are distinctive and worth thinking about.

As a scholar-in-residence at American University and professor of history at the University of Virginia, Bond presented his audience with a cross-movement approach to African-American history in his keynote address.

In his speech, Bond returned to the theme of importance of building broad-based coalitions across movements and constituencies, rather than being narrowly focused on group identity and single-group interests. He noted that the bus boycott in Montgomery “was the beginning of a mass movement that destroyed segregation and permanently changed our world.”

The bus boycott, he said, led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which facilitated efforts to end discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, religion and age, and he drew a parallel between that sequence and the fact that the principal actors in the 2008 campaign were a black man, a woman, an Hispanic, a Mormon,” and a man who, had he been elected, would have been “the oldest person elected to the presidency.”

He also noted that “successful strategies of the modern movement for civil rights were litigation, organization, mobilization and coalition, all aimed to form a national constituency for civil rights.” He added, “We have a long and honorable tradition of social justice in this country. It still sends forth the message that when we act together, we can overcome.”

Historians will continue to debate where the emphasis should be placed in telling the story of the struggle for civil rights, regardless of race or ethnicity, in America. Some will focus on extraordinary efforts and discipline within black communities to throw off the yoke of social and political exclusion and second class citizenship over a period of more than two centuries. Others will focus on the multi-racial and interreligious aspects of the struggle, particularly within the context of American values and ideals that ultimately proved to be amenable to the social reforms that ended the system based on racial hierarchy.

Although Bond’s main theme was the persistence of American racism, his multi-dimensional approach to the history of the civil rights movement, an approach that acknowledges the interrelationship between the struggle of blacks for social equality, the capacity for broad-based coalition-building and an expansive interpretation of the founding principles of the United States, provides the student of history, and the general public, with a better sense of who we are as a nation and the dynamic nature of American society. This is an example of the contribution that history as an academic discipline can bring to our understanding of the fluidity and contested nature of American identity and to ongoing struggles for social justice.

C. Matthew Hawkins

Social worker and historian

K. Leroy Irvis and Alumni Fellow

Administrative and Policy Studies

Social and Comparative Analysis

School of Education


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