Are there any American “heroes” we can agree on in 2019? This might sound like an abstract question, but for the Fourth of July weekend, Politico Magazine has decided to make it more concrete, asking experts: Who would you put on a new Mount Rushmore?
Every year, more than 2 million people drive to Keystone, South Dakota, to stare at the 60-foot-tall granite heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. The sheer size of those heads evokes our sense of the heroic—people who didn’t just achieve something but embodied larger American values. “What makes the hero a hero is the romantic notion that he stands above the tawdry give and take of everyday politics,” H.W. Brands wrote in his biography of Roosevelt.
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For all their contributions to American history, it is hard, in 2019, not to think about the fact that two of the four figures on Mount Rushmore—all white men—owned slaves, and none even served at a time when women could vote. Americans today are deeply divided about which historical figures we should continue to revere; over the past several years, many of the old “heroes” of U.S. history have been revisited and, in some cases, lopped off their pedestals, both metaphorically and literally.
If a new Mount Rushmore were designed today, it’s reasonable to argue it should look very different. But who would make the cut?
To imagine a new mountain, one that reflects the nation we live in now, we asked a collection of writers and historians for suggestions. Who are the figures Americans should stand below and gaze up at? Who speaks to 21st-century America, or exemplifies some essential American value, or has been overlooked for too long? In whose stories can we find the makings of a new, shared national myth? Here’s what they said.
Ida B. Wells
Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, editor-in-chief of The North Star and author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.
For many people, Mount Rushmore represents the ultimate symbol of the United States. The four presidents whose faces are on display left a lasting impact on American society. Yet in 2019, as our nation becomes increasingly diverse, one cannot help but observe the glaring exclusion of women and people of color. While there are many Americans who deserve a spot on Mount Rushmore, I would like to see a carving of Ida. B. Wells, a black woman whose life and ideas embodied the American ideals of liberty and justice for all.
Wells, a fiery civil rights activist, political journalist and co-founder of the NAACP worked tirelessly to bring an end to lynching in the United States. From the late 19th century, when she became co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, until her death in 1931, Wells publicly challenged racial violence and Southern Jim Crow laws—even at the risk of her own life.
Holding fast to her mantra, “truth is mighty,” Wells’ editorials and speeches directly confronted the problems of racism, inequality and violence in American society, and brought attention to the systemic problem of lynching in the United States. By presenting statistical data based on meticulous research, Wells debunked widespread beliefs that victims of lynching were guilty of committing crimes. In so doing, she demonstrated how lynching functioned as a tool of white supremacy—designed to prevent the social advancement of black people in the aftermath of slavery. Her anti-lynching campaign, which extended throughout the United States and Britain, helped to catapult the issue of racial violence into the center of national and international political discourse.
At a moment in our nation’s history when truth seems to be a luxury, Wells’ passionate truth-telling in the face of injustice serves as a model for all. Her ideas and activism provide a blueprint for how we might address contemporary—and persistent—challenges in American society, including racism, discrimination and state-sanctioned violence.
Geoffrey Kabaservice is director of political studies at the Niskanen Center and author of .
Elliot Richardson looked remarkably like Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent. If the likeness of the former attorney general were to be carved at a grand scale on some new Mount Rushmore, you might imagine him the embodiment of virtues beyond those of normal mortals. Indeed, one of his political opponents even printed a bumper sticker saying, “Vote for Elliot Richardson: He’s better than you.” But the lesson he taught us is that the responsibility for preserving American values belongs to every citizen. In memorializing him, we remind ourselves of our own obligation to stand up for democracy when it’s threatened.
Richardson didn’t want to be remembered only (or even primarily) for his role in the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” when he resigned as attorney general, rather than accept President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. His long career in public service began with his World War II heroics as a platoon leader in the D-Day assault on Utah Beach, included several political offices in his native Massachusetts and extended through four different Cabinet positions, as well as two ambassadorial appointments.
Born into what was, in effect, the American aristocracy—Richardson was descended from Boston’s earliest settlers and grew up in President John Adams’ boyhood home—he combined ancient WASP ideals of honor and courage with modern principles of inclusive, accountable leadership. A moderate Republican, he believed deeply in civil liberties and civil rights; he had the educative experience of being turned away from segregated Washington, D.C., restaurants in the late 1940s, while out dining with his fellow Supreme Court law clerk William Coleman, the first African-American to occupy that position. As Nixon’s secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Richardson championed the Family Assistance Plan (the precursor to the Earned Income Tax Credit), as well as a visionary proposal for universal catastrophic health insurance that many analysts, in some respects, to the health care plans advanced decades later by Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Nonetheless, Richardson’s legacy is defined by his conscientious defiance of Nixon’s order that he fire Cox. His decision to resign was difficult because Richardson had great personal loyalty to Nixon and understood that he was sacrificing his own hopes of political advancement in order to save the republic. But integrity dictated no other course.
Watergate, along with the Vietnam War, gave rise to our present corrosive public cynicism about government and politics. But Richardson still stands as a shining reminder of the capacity of public servants to live up to our enduring traditions of republican virtue and a government of what our founders called “laws not men.” We honor our highest values by remembering his example.
Michael Benjamin Washington is an actor and playwright.
In 2008, the very thing I was told would never occur happened: A black man was elected president of the United States. In 2012, it happened again.
Shortly after Obama’s election, as I strolled through Central Park on a rainy, unemployed afternoon, contemplating newfound possibilities and forgetting old assurances, I was startled by the number of bronzed white men populating the park. No statues of women. No people of color. But there is a dog.
I immediately went home to review a draft of my play, Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin. I questioned: Shouldn’t this great man—a black Quaker who traveled to India in 1948 to collect the nonviolent civil disobedience teachings of a recently assassinated Mohandas Gandhi from his disciples, thus sparking the American Peace Movement—be standing alongside these historical figures? Why isn’t this brilliant political organizer and strategist who taught, tutored and mentored—three very different verbs—the same value system to an inexperienced young minister from Atlanta named Martin Luther King Jr. in 1955, thus shaping the bedrock of the civil rights movement, be embossed near these white political leaders?
Rustin’s life and legacy have been buried under an avalanche of reductive labels and adjectives: socialist, openly homosexual, agitator, ex-con (for conscientiously objecting to the draft). Statues and monuments weren’t built for men who challenged the system, but for those who maintained it. But as a new generation of what Rustin called “angelic troublemakers” takes to the streets to march and fight for their demands, wouldn’t it be lovely if, somewhere in our great cities, an immortalized reminder of great outsiders were erected to showcase the power of pride and persistence?
Patsy Takemoto Mink
Judy Tzu-Chun Wu is a professor of Asian American studies and director of the Humanities Center at the University of California, Irvine.
To memorialize Patsy Mink on a new Mount Rushmore is to honor the promise of the United States.
She was born in the middle of the Pacific, in Hawaii, three decades before it was a state, when it was a hierarchical plantation society, one that displaced Native Hawaiians, with a population dominated by laborers who, like her grandparents, had emigrated there to harvest sugar cane. She was an outsider who advocated for others relegated to the margins of U.S. society, amplifying their voices and fighting for human rights.
A few years after statehood, Mink was elected to Congress, becoming the first woman of color to serve in the House of Representatives. From 1965 to 1977 and again from 1990 to 2002, the year she passed away—and when her loving constituents reelected her posthumously—Mink spearheaded antiwar, environmental and feminist legislation. Her legacy is defined by Title IX, the 1972 landmark civil rights law (now renamed after Mink) that mandates gender equity in schools and has opened up opportunities for tens of millions of girls and women in academic programs, scholarships, campus housing, educational employment and athletics.
Title IX brought a seismic shift in American life. Beforehand, it was legal for schools to discriminate against female students or expel them for being pregnant; colleges could block women from admission; schools were under no obligation to prevent or address sexual harassment of young women; and sports teams for female students were virtually nonexistent. After the law sent into effect, women and girls could no longer be relegated to second-class citizenship in America’s schools—as monumental an achievement as one can attain. To honor Mink is to recognize the persistent inequalities that exist in the United States and beyond, while celebrating the political imagination and will to create a more just society.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Garry Wills is the author of, among other books, Why I Am a Catholic, Papal Sin and Lincoln at Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
When Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, putting an end to Democratic control of the White House through the 1930s and 1940s, many Republicans thought they could at last reverse or rescind the New Deal, which they had run against under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. The realistic Eisenhower knew better, as he wrote in to his brother in 1954: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again.”
Eisenhower’s service to this nation did not end with his calm direction of the vast European campaigns of World War II. People like Winston Churchill thought that with World War II over, we could restore the old colonial system in the world. Not Eisenhower. Asked to rescue the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, he said no. When France and England tried to “retake” the Suez Canal in 1956, Eisenhower joined with the United Nations in stopping that. Eisenhower had ended the Korean War with a compromising armistice, where others had said we could not “lose face” that way. Other presidents were cowed by generals; Eisenhower defied them and their lobbying contractors, being the only president to cut defense spending while warning us against “the military industrial complex.”
At home, he did not praise the Brown v. Board of Education decision; he just enforced it, sending troops into the South for the first time since Reconstruction. Admittedly, he gave us Richard Nixon. But he tried repeatedly to take back that poisoned gift, demanding that Nixon first prove he was “clean as a hound’s tooth.” When Nixon was running on his own in 1960, asked what contribution he had made as a vice president, Eisenhower said, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
He gave us so much peace and prosperity that he was mocked as sleeping through his years in office. Would that other presidents slept so well.
Susan Bordo is the author, most recently, of The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Untangling the Political Forces, Media Culture, and Assault on Fact that Decided the 2016 Election.
I hate the self-congratulatory term “woke.” No person or politics can claim that achievement. But there are genuine moments of startled recognition, when we suddenly see our familiar world with new eyes. We’re living through one of them: Practically every day, we wake up to the reality of just how fragile—not just radically imperfect, but radically fragile—the rule of law actually is.
This cultural moment gives new meaning to Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s description of Thurgood Marshall as “the greatest lawyer of the 20th century.” Taught by his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston that the Constitution was a “weapon” in the battle for equality, Marshall was a tireless legal warrior against the conventions that normalized the unjust and the morally unacceptable. The 14th Amendment was his inherited artillery, but he understood that the words themselves were not capable of conferring equal protection under law; that equality must be fought for.
Marshall is best known for tearing down the legal architecture of segregation and, later, for becoming the first black Supreme Court justice. In the official histories, he is most prominently recognized as a fighter for racial justice. In fact, he deepened and broadened our understanding of the 14th Amendment in ways that would serve reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, workers’ rights and the very concept of “equality” itself.
Marshall was, of course, the attorney behind the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit that led the Supreme Court to rule in 1954 that racially segregated, “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional. The brutal backlash that followed, televised over the next decade for the entire nation to see, turned a struggle seen by many Northerners as a “Southern thing” into a nationwide social movement.
Marshall was not surprised by the tenacity of resistance to integration. He understood that the legal battle for equality was also a cultural war, and that the enemy had tentacles that reached far beyond the domain of the law. As a young traveling attorney for the NAACP, he combated poll taxes and other forms of voter suppression. But he also believed that the vote would not be truly democratically deployed until other forms of discrimination—in education and employment, for example—were abolished. As a Supreme Court justice, his arguments against the death penalty emphasized that it not only was “cruel and unusual punishment,” but also that it was disproportionately meted out to black men. Likewise, in arguing for Roe v. Wade, he stressed that the burdens and risks of illegal abortions fell disproportionately on the backs of poor women. His vision of justice was inclusive and took into account the world as it is actually lived.
Looking back at his arguments from the vantage point of 2019, it’s clear that Marshall was not just a revolutionary thinker, but, in many ways, ahead of his time. Yet, when I teach the 1950s and 1960s to college students, they rarely have heard of him. Like other innovators from the era, he left a huge historical footprint, but the man himself has been eclipsed by more visible, dramatic forms of activism.
“We make movies about Malcolm X, we get a holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King,” read an editorial in the Washington Afro-American after Marshall’s death in 1993, “but every day, we live with the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall.”
Andrew J. Bacevich is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, will be published in January.
Ours is a time when authenticity is in notably short supply. The American scene today is awash with frauds, phonies and poseurs. An appalling number of them prosper. For proof, one need look no further than the various personages who presently claim 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as their residence or place of employment.
Dorothy Day exuded authenticity. Through words and work, she testified to her convictions with unwavering consistency. To the marrow of her bones, she was a Catholic Christian. Jesus Christ had commanded: “Love God and love your neighbor.” After her own youthful journey of discovery, Day responded with a resounding “Yes.”
The implications of that affirmative answer were profound. Day devoted her life to doing the Lord’s work—a phrase used here without the slightest trace of irony. She co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement—which, in a network of 174 communities across the nation (and another 29 abroad), still today provides food, shelter and comfort to the most vulnerable among us. At a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality, no one is ever turned away.
Day denounced racism and campaigned for social justice, causes that featured prominently in her columns in the Catholic Worker newspaper that she founded in 1933 and edited until her death in 1980. An uncompromising pacifist, she steadfastly opposed all war and figured prominently in the anti-nuclear weapons movement of the early Cold War. Activism, resistance and love were the overarching themes of her long and consequential life.
Day was the real deal. Few of us today have the strength of character to follow in her footsteps. Yet all of us can benefit from her example.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers-Camden and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.
The Americans remembered in our monuments and museums should include those who were marginalized from institutional power, instead of just those who wielded it. If MountRushmore featured Fannie Lou Hamer, everyone who saw it would learn both about a life that revealed harsh truths about America and an American whose patriotism was exercised in spite of the country as it was and in support of the country she fought for it to be.
In the United States, progress has often resulted from the willingness of the most exploited and marginalized people to reveal—and risk—their personal pain in order to curb the same injustices against others. When Hamercrowds in 1964 that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she had good reason to give up on an America that had failed her from the start.
Within six years of her birth in 1917, in the Mississippi Delta, Hamer joined her family in the cotton fields. A racist system ensured that her education was cut short by the age of 12, but it was individual white racists—including the doctor who sterilized her without her consent in 1961, the officials who denied her the right to register to vote and the white plantation owner who attempted to fire her for trying to do so in 1962—whoto maintain a system denying black women like Hamer the basic dignity of personhood. When Hamer was jailed in 1963 while working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, white male officers beat her so badly that she sustained lifelong injuries. At each point of brutalization, Hamer could have focused on her own survival, but she channeled her pain into protest, joining the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and running for Congress that same year.
In televisedbefore the DNC’s credentials committee that August, she described, in graphic detail, the state-sanctioned violence to which she and other black citizens were subjected. With poise, passion and power, she demanded that not only the Democratic Party, but also the nation, do better. For the remainder of her life, she continued her civil rights advocacy, helping to found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.
Hamer spoke an incredibly painful and personal truth to power at great risk to herself and with little reason to believe the system that had long failed her would listen. She lent her selflessness, resilience and power to upend that system. Yes, Hamer was sick and tired of the America in which she was never fully free, but she was tireless in her fight for an America in which she—and those who shared her race and gender—would be.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College.
A new monument that represents America would have to include Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man who transformed our government from one that privileged a few wealthy white men into one that answered to ordinary Americans.
When FDR took office in 1933, the Great Depression had left factories idle, fields rotting, and people unemployed and starving. Across Europe, people frustrated by the apparent inability of democratic leaders to end their economic misery turned to authoritarians. Fascism was rising; democracy was under siege.
Where fascists argued that some people were inherently better than others, FDR’s concept of democracy depended on human equality. He recognized that defending democracy meant creating a government that worked for everyone—one that expanded opportunity, provided a basic social safety net and developed the infrastructure essential for growth and modernity. And, critically, it also meant using government to check powerful interests, regulate business and banking, and protect workers’ rights. With the nation’s entry into World War II in 1941, FDR fought to defeat fascism and save democracy, while proving that the latter was superior, both ideologically and pragmatically.
It’s true that Congress’ New Deal policies privileged white men, not least because enacting those policies required the votes of Southern Democratic senators. But the ideological shift from a government that protected property to a government that protected civil rights mattered. FDR made it clear that the government worked for ordinary Americans. In 1933, he appointed the first female Cabinet secretary, Frances Perkins, who as head of the Labor Department developed Social Security legislation. In 1941, FDR banned racially discriminatory hiring in the federal government and at defense contractors, no small thing during the wartime mobilization of WWII.
By the time FDR died in 1945, just weeks before the Allies won their war to defeat fascism and tyranny, Americans of all parties—a “liberal consensus”—had rededicated themselves to his conception of democracy. Roosevelt’s vision produced the nation’s greatest years, a time when, briefly, it seemed that all Americans could achieve equality. It deserves to be remembered.
George H.W. Bush
Tom Nichols is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise. The views expressed are his own.
George H.W. Bush is an unlikely choice for a new Mount Rushmore because we know him too well. We know his odd mannerisms, his garbled phrases, his reedy voice that sounded thin even when he was delivering pronouncements of the greatest importance.
What makes Bush worthy of a monument is the way he applied courage and prudence to a world in chaos. We are all here—and not rebuilding a world shattered by a final nuclear paroxysm as the Soviet Union imploded—because of him.
Republicans too often give credit for the end of the Cold War almost solely to Ronald Reagan. But bringing the final Soviet collapse to a peaceful conclusion was almost entirely the work of Bush. He had to guide the wounded Soviet state to a soft landing, reassuring the Kremlin while protecting the world he hoped would emerge from the wreckage of the Cold War. When it was over, he sat at his desk and eliminated entire inventories of nuclear weapons with the stroke of a pen, and he disestablished one of the most powerful commands in the U.S. military. He did this without fanfare or much public notice, and when he was turned out of office in the midst of an inevitable economic setback, he accepted the result with his usual stoicism and grace. His successor inherited a country at the pinnacle of global power and a planet far safer than it had been in generations.
In the years since Bush was defeated in 1992, we have squandered his legacy. But his remarkable achievement is not diminished by our subsequent inability to be better stewards of what he bequeathed to us.
Jennifer Boylan is a contributing op-ed columnist for the New York Times, the author of 15 books and the Anna Quindlen writer in residence at Barnard College of Columbia University.
Dorothy Parker was a woman who shone brilliantly in a man’s world, back when the boyos thought being a “woman writer” was an aberrant stunt, like a circus bear riding a unicycle.
She’s best known now for her poems (“Love is a thing that can never go wrong / And I am Marie of Romania)”, her clever bon mots (“If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised”) and her membership in the Algonquin Round Table. But she was also a dedicated activist for civil rights and civil liberties. Five years before the United States entered World War II, she co-founded the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League—a group that counted many communists in its ranks and that contributed to Parker being blacklisted during the Red Scare. Even so, she continued to advocate for social change, supporting the civil rights movement.
Putting Parker on a new Mount Rushmore would even the score with Lilian Hellman, her so-called friend, who insisted on giving Parker the funeral she did not want and then refused to foot the bill to have her ashes buried. (To be fair, Hellman had been caught off guard by the fact that Parker’s will had made Hellman her literary executrix, even though the proceeds from any copyrighted work would go to Parker’s legal heir: Martin Luther King Jr., whom Hellman did not particularly like.) Parker’s remains wound up in storage at the cemetery for five years and, after that, spent 15 ignominious years in the file cabinet of a lawyer on Wall Street. In 2012, her remains were finally interred at NAACP headquarters, along with her chosen epitaph: “Excuse my dust.”
Finally, putting Parker on Mount Rushmore would make it clear that she deserves to be honored not just for her wit but for her wisdom. She had miraculous measures of both:
Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.
Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.
Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.
Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Gil Troy is an American presidential historian, professor at McGill University, and author of and .
America has an Oval Office obsession. We recognize Great Men when they occupy the White House. We hear them when they speak; we see them when they appear before cameras. But the people devoted to the serious business of governance—and who embody the qualities that requires—all too often seem unremarkable, even as theirs is the work that shapes the world.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one of the post-World War II era’s most influential nonpresidents. As an adviser and policy expert, he served in the presidential administrations of Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as Republicans Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford—a remarkable display of nonpartisanship that we need today. From 1977 to 2001, this loyal Democratic senator from New York cooperated with Cold War Republicans like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush while often tutoring colleagues from both parties on an astonishing range of issues. An updated American narrative must incorporate such patriotic virtuosity and old-fashioned civility.
While insisting that “words matter” and that we’re more than our origins, Moynihan represents a key stage in America’s maturation from all-white leadership to pluralistic governance. This proud Irish-Catholic climbed from Hell’s Kitchen to Harvard, an urban ethnic charting new paths to success. And as a poor kid who made good in the Ivory Tower and Washington’s corridors of power, he understood how constraining class could be—yet how liberating the American Dream is.
Moynihan was a Jeffersonian scholar-statesman: thinker, teacher, bridge-builder, policy wonk and quipster, both smart and funny. He generated a treasure trove of insights, warning against the “tangle of pathology” and “defining deviancy down”; snapping that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions but not to his own facts”; defending Israel and the West from terrorists and totalitarian dictators by focusing on the “accusers” not “the accused”; teaching, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
During the bleak, breast-beating 1970s, Moynihan proclaimed that “ours is a society worth defending.” So much of what he did, said and taught prove that he was an all-American life worth celebrating.
Grace Lee Boggs
Jeff Chang is vice president of Race Forward and author of .
When she passed away in 2015, at the age of 100, Detroit-based activist Grace Lee Boggs had become an oracle to a new generation in the streets. She spoke about what she called the “next American revolution.” “It’s that time on the clock of the universe,” she said, “where we face an evolution to a higher humanity, or the devastation and extinction of all life on earth.”
In Detroit, where many saw an urban wasteland, Boggs saw creativity and change. The seeds for community-based renewal were being planted in urban farms, accountability campaigns and educational programs that, she said, “put the neighbor back in the ’hood.” She described the work as a cultural revolution, where residents were transforming themselves and producing practical solutions that capitalism and government never could.
She once said, “Because I was born to Chinese immigrant parents and because I was born female—I learned very quickly that the world needed changing.” She entered Barnard College at the age of 16 and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy by the age of 26. The Depression introduced her to radical politics. She chose a life of radical thought whose touch points included Hegel, Marx, C.L.R. James’ postcolonial writings, Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grassroots” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. Drawn to Detroit—where the workers were—she met the love of her life, the labor organizer James Boggs. The two were so influential in activist circles that, in the aftermath of the city’s 1967 rebellion, they were targeted for surveillance by the police.
But the uprising left the couple disillusioned, wanting to rethink the notion of revolution. The rise to power of Coleman Young, the charismatic, controversial former labor lawyer who, in 1973, was elected Detroit’s first black mayor, was no balm. “I began to see that Black Power could not solve the crisis we were facing,” she recalled. Detroit was evidence that capitalism did not work. “People always striving for size, to be a giant,” Bogs scoffs in the PBS documentary of her life, “,” as she pushes her walker past gutted car factories. Instead, her post-materialist vision melded “the personal is political” and “small is beautiful” with “the beloved community.”
“Radicals don’t usually talk about souls,” she said. “What I mean by ‘souls’ is the capacity to create the world anew, which each of us has.”
Allyson Hobbs is an associate professor of U.S. history and director of African and African-American studies at Stanford University.
Almost 150 years before civil rights activist Tarana Burke founded the MeToo Movement, Harriet Jacobs had the courage to speak the unspeakable, sharing with the world her narrative as an enslaved woman and a survivor of sexual violence. Adding Jacobs to Mt. Rushmore in 2019 would expand our country’s understanding of enslavement and force a reckoning with the rampant rape and sexual violence that lay at the core of slavery.
Jacobs was born in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813. When she was only 12 years old, her master began to subject her to his sexual advances. Today, psychologists would call the effects of these advances “inappropriate sexualization,” a phenomenon that leads children to understand their value and worth primarily in sexual terms. Jacobs’ owner whispered foul words in her ear, and she endured his wife’s angry and jealous outbursts. As Jacobs later wrote in the narrative of her enslavement,, published in 1861, she was “prematurely knowing in evil things.”
To escape her master’s depravity, Jacobs ran. She hid in people’s homes and she took cover in a swamp. She would spend nearly seven years hiding in her grandmother’s attic, as her master continued to pursue her and published advertisements in newspapers in dogged but failed attempts to find her. She became physically disabled from living in such intolerable conditions, a dark and cramped space that was sweltering in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. She only could glimpse her children through small openings in the crawl space. She knew her children never could be her own; she had no power to protect them from the whims and the violent acts of their master.
Jacobs waited for her chance to escape, which finally came in 1842, when she took a boat to New York and eventually was joined by her children. After finding freedom, Jacobs decided to give voice to the experiences of a legion of enslaved women like her. She became the only woman to author a book-length autobiography in the antebellum period. She used creative narrative strategies to bridge the chasm between enslaved women and middle-class white readers,that she wanted to “arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women in the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse.”
Her narrative shattered the pattern of enslaved male narrators like Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup by emphasizing collective action over individualistic ideas about masculinity and freedom. “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women,” Jacobs wrote. “Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.”
Jacobs faced hostile and doubtful audiences, but she forced them to take her seriously and to see the authenticity of her harrowing tale. She would not allow her readers to reduce her to her trauma: She presented herself as a whole human being—a granddaughter, a daughter, a mother, a seamstress and a writer. In boldly recounting her personal history, she revealed slavery’s enormous costs and the courage and resilience of those who endured those costs. We must remember Jacobs. With extraordinary courage, she began a movement—which continues today—to tell the truth and to fight for black women’s humanity.
Aaron David Miller is a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center and author of .
We live in an age where true greatness in our politics seems to have gone the way of the dodo. We have no problem appreciating it on the athletic field, on the stage or screen—but it’s notably absent in our political class. And so, we reach back to the past looking for heroes to somehow redeem our faith in our politics, our institutions and ourselves. And even our past heroes seem to disappoint—deemed either irrelevant to our current circumstances or debunked for hewing to the prejudiced standards of their time.
Still, if I had to choose a figure for a new Mount Rushmore, I’d choose a repeat from the original—Abraham Lincoln. Few others from across the broad expanse of America’s history have risen above time, space and partisan politics to remain so relevant to the challenges we face today. The qualities Lincoln embodied resonate powerfully, and we need them again in our political class.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all.” Those simple words from his Second Inaugural made Lincoln a symbol of moral clarity and elevated the presidency to a platform for moral leadership at a time when the nation needed to heal and regain its balance from years of bloody civil war. Our divided polity requires nothing less today. Lincoln got us through blue versus gray and laid the foundation for a new framework to deal with race in America. Surely, we can absorb what he taught us and aspire to find our way through blue versus red, too.
Yes, Lincoln was an historic transformer. But he was not a naïve, idealistic politician untethered from the realities of his times. Perhaps one of his greatest strengths was his capacity to read his political time accurately, to wait—even at the expense of bitter and justified criticism from abolitionists—to find the right timing for the Emancipation Proclamation, and then to shepherd the 13th Amendment into ratification, abolishing slavery through fraught politics using distasteful pressure, horse-trading and questionable quid pro quos to secure its passage.
Lincoln, too, has gone the way of the dodo. And America has changed fundamentally from his time. But the qualities he embodied—his compassion, realism, faith in vision of a better America—resonate powerfully still. And their return to our politics is more urgently needed now than ever.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons (Wells, Mink, Marshall, Day, Roosevelt, Jacobs, Lincoln), Associated Press (Richardson, Rusin, Eisenhower, Hamer, Bush), Library of Congress (Parker, Moynihan), Kyle McDonald/Flickr (Boggs).