By Lee A. Daniels
Sam Cooke’s early 1960s pop tune, “Don’t Know Much About History,” was a big hit on the charts. Unfortunately, the gospel and soul star’s lyrics also expressed a reality that still haunts American society. Just Google the phrase “don’t know much about history,” and you’ll see the breadth of the evidence that Americans of all ages are, as a group, woefully ignorant about basic facts of America’s history and its governmental structure.
Putting that ignorance on display has been a staple of comedic man-in-the-street interviews on late-night talk shows for decades. But its alarming seriousness is more clearly seen in such scholastic tests as the periodic National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) history test, which have firmly established that America’s students – tomorrow’s adults and decision-makers – really don’t know much about the country’s past.
And it’s seen in the 2014 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. That found that 21 percent of Americans think that Congress can reconsider U.S. Supreme Court rulings decided on a narrow, 5-to-4 basis; that, while 36 percent of Americans could name all three branches of the national government, 35 percent couldn’t name one; and that more than a quarter of the American populace don’t know it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto.
Reducing that ignorance is one reason Arizona state legislators have given in enacting a bill that requires all of the state’s students to pass a 100-question, multiple-choice “citizenship test” in order to graduate from high school. The test, drawn up by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, is the same test given to immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship. But, while immigrants need correctly answer only six of 10 questions drawn from the list in order to pass, Arizona’s students must correctly answer 60 of the list’s 100 questions. Arizona’s is the first such requirement in the country, but at least 13 other state legislatures are considering similar measures.
One might think such a requirement would draw universal support. Instead, however, it has provoked numerous pointed questions from within Arizona and elsewhere. For example, some criticize the legislation as imposing on teachers and students another burdensome “teach-to-the-test” requirement that will leave little time for discussion of the complexities of American history and government. Others note that the Arizona legislature didn’t provide any money to fund the cost of the program. Still others note Arizona’s recent history as a hotbed of hostility to undocumented immigrants and claim stoking that hostility is the true subtext for the law.
Some may see the controversy as unwarranted or a tempest in a teapot. But in fact it should remind us how controversial issues of citizenship and individuals’ relationship to the American nation have always been. That reality deserves special emphasis in February, the month dedicated to exploring the history of African-Americans. For that history rests on how contentious issues of citizenship have been in the American past. And now such developments as the anniversaries of the Civil War and the mid-20th -century Civil Rights Movement, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 underscore that the struggle over citizenship for all within America’s borders continues.
As I’ve written in recent columns, that’s one of the many important insights the film “Selma” –which, after all, is about Black Americans securing the fundamental right of American citizenship to the vote—offers us, and why the words and the presence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seem so much more with us now than at any time since his assassination. “Selma” brings home the fact that King was not just a “leader.” He was a man of the people – people who took actions on their own to join the freedom struggle, people whose sacrifice for that struggle was as meaningful as his.
King’s words and actions seem relevant again because he was the chief “spokesman” of a mass movement that challenged the entrenched injustice of the status quo and always urged individuals to live up to humanity’s best possibilities and democracy’s best possibilities. This was a movement of people whose allegiance to the American Ideal went beyond simply knowing the “basic facts” of the American past and how the American government was organized. These were people who were committed to changing some of the basic facts of how the government was organized so that the words “with liberty and justice for all” would be transformed from mere rhetoric to a vibrant reality.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com.