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In the months after watching the musical Hamilton, I congratulated my friend and Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis on producing a work that brought together people across the political spectrum, be they then-President Barack Obama or former Vice President Dick Cheney. From my then-perch as President of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I dared to fantasize we had moved beyond the culture wars.
Today, February 2015 appears a moment of relative national innocence. The pulsing and energetic lyrics, quick paced storytelling, witty dialogue, stylish set design, and slick dance moves announced a new moment in musical theater. The play’s multiracial cast and hip-hop intonations were a part of its attractiveness. Critics raved and audiences flocked to see the freshest musical in a generation, if not two.
While scholars debated some of its historical accuracy, it did not become a foil in the ideology battles over whose narrative of America would prevail. Hamilton was about a moment of national promise.
In the almost decade since, the tenor and tone of national discourse has yet again returned to one of them versus us. In that ideological recentering, some claim, “American history begins in 1619.” Others retort, “No, American history starts in 1776.” One camp insists slavery must be an integral part of the national cultural lesson plan, while others recoil and say such a focus makes White kids feel horrible for the injustices of the past.
Rhetorical, even ideological, differences are to be expected in a diverse and prosperous democracy. What we all should fear, however, is a rigid orthodoxy, no matter the deliverer. I am not offering permission to adopt a milquetoast response to critical issues. Evidence, facts, and truths do matter. We can debate that evidence, attempt to verify those facts, and interrogate any truths, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to accept a kind of convenient relevancy to simply advance one’s position.
When discussing the current political moment with one friend, long a champion of interfaith cooperation, he blanched at the penchant to ban books or hunker down behind the wall of absolute orthodoxies. Although visibly identified with the left, he questioned the utility of limiting debate or conversation because it didn’t square with one’s beliefs.
He also cautioned me as I cast about for solutions to remember that the politicians at the forefront of the more aggressive attempts to fight from one corner of the ideological spectrum, had been voted into office. This means that we can work to vote them out of office and hope to persuade a plurality of voters of the wisdom of doing so. Or we can adopt the long game: pursuing incremental change.
But I sense there is a third option, one drawn from history. In the summer of 1964, civil rights activists flooded parts of the South to register African Americans to vote. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. That legislation prohibited discrimination based on race, gender, religion, color, and national origins. It explicitly addressed racial exclusion from voting. But it would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for the authority of the state to undo more than three-quarters of a century of law and practice. Once the law passed, African Americans needed to be prepared to take full advantage of the franchise.
To prepare for full participation in the nation’s civic culture, college students organized Freedom Schools across the South. The instructions included aspects of African American history, lessons in voting and the organization of government, fundamentals about life in a participatory democracy. Their students were young and old, each eager to equip themselves with tools for full involvement in American society.
What if we took the model of the 1960s Freedom School and modernized it for today’s political moment? Instead of forming the building blocks for voter participation, we are shaping what a new generation knows and understands about their place in a diverse democracy.
Recently a group of Black church leaders in Florida seized control of what they wanted their children to learn. They announced that more than 200 of them had come together to begin teaching African American history in their churches. Imagine the implications of the headline which read, Black churches in Florida buck DeSantis: 'Our churches will teach our own history.' The account went on to say, “Friendship Missionary is among the more than 200 mostly Black churches in Florida taking steps to teach Black history in part because of what faith leaders call the restricted and ‘watered-down’ versions schools must teach under the state’s new policies. Instead, pastors equipped with a new Black history toolkit are teaching unfiltered lessons during Sunday school, Bible Study or as part of sermons.”
This is a pioneering and invaluable start. But what if the effort embraced the state and region’s interfaith community? What if students could take such lessons in Black churches, certainly, but also in mosques, synagogues, temples, and non-Black churches across the region? What if faculty, college students, and others agreed to enhance the lesson plan, and provisions were made for participating students to take the appropriate AP exams, attesting to their mastery of the subject matter?
During the Civil Rights Movement, Black churches played a pivotal role because of their independence from White control. That same independence has seemingly motivated a cross section of Black clergy to position their congregations to fight this century’s form of the New Jim Crow. What if we took another lesson from the past and activated 21st century Freedom Schools for inclusion and democracy, and did so in partnership with an interfaith coalition of religious institutions, colleges, faculty, and students? Such a coalition, in the words of Hamilton, would mean, together, “We get the job done!”