How to use the past to fight for your rights today

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  • Shana Bernstein: Past abuses of civil liberties yield insight to present-day threats
  • Nearly 1,800 historians and scholars, she writes, are calling for 'informed citizenship'

Shana Bernstein is a historian and Clinical Associate Professor of Legal Studies at Northwestern University. She writes and teaches about issues of immigration, civil rights, and the environment, and is the author of Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. The views expressed here are solely hers.

(CNN)This weekend, I traveled from Chicago to Washington for the Women's March. Surrounded by hundreds of thousands of women and men, young and old, black and white, in wheelchairs and walking, I was inspired to see how many of us feel the need right now to stand up for our own rights and for those of our fellow Americans from every background. From the plane from Chicago to DC (filled with pink hats), to Metro lines snaking around the corner, to being jam packed on the National Mall, the march and its scope uplifted me for the first time in over two months as I realized how many of my fellow Americans believe we must act as citizens to protect our rights.

Shana Bernstein
Some argue that such a protest is partisan and unfair, since Donald Trump has just taken office. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest the marchers are right to be concerned. This month, Human Rights Watch issued a report that, for the first time in its twenty-seven year history, listed the United States as one of the biggest human rights threats because of the election of Donald Trump. Human Rights Watch published its report in the same week that Congress vetted Jeff Sessions as Attorney General in the face of historic opposition from civil rights groups like the NAACP and ACLU.
    As a historian, I'm in a unique position to spotlight threats -- past and present -- to our civil liberties. The march, the inauguration, and the Human Rights Watch report coincide with the thirtieth anniversary this month of the U.S. House of Representatives' introduction of legislation that became the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, Congress's apology on behalf of the nation for the World War II imprisonment of more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent. And that provides an important opportunity to pause and reflect. On January 6, 1987, Congressman Tom Foley of Washington introduced legislation that would acknowledge the internment of citizens and foreigners alike under the guise of military necessity as a mistake, a "grave injustice" fueled by racism. In its final form, the bill signed into law by President Ronald Reagan stated, "The internment of the individuals of Japanese ancestry was caused by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."
    Our present shows us that we can't afford to forget the past. The Southern Poverty Law Center continues to report the occurrence of significant spikes in hate crimes apparently spurred by the election. Notably, some of the President-elect's advisors have justified suggestions for a Muslim registry by citing Japanese-American imprisonment during World War II as a credible precedent.
    Along with two colleagues, I recently organized a statement of principle, now signed by almost 1,800 scholars of U.S. history and related fields with a variety of political orientations, including at least six Pulitzer Prize winners, a MacArthur "Genius" award recipient, five Bancroft Prize winners, twelve Guggenheim Fellows, and many other highly distinguished and eminent scholars from across the country and internationally. It suggests we must use historical knowledge — like the content of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act and its acknowledgment of our nation's past missteps — as part of what we call "informed citizenship." Looking back to history provides copious lessons on what is at stake when we allow hysteria and untruths to trample people's rights. A key lesson has been to never again repeat these mistakes, and so we issue a call to recognize and act upon the critical links between historical knowledge, informed citizenship, and the protection of civil and human rights.
    To be sure, some suggest that historians should remain impartial, and that by issuing a collective statement we are being partisan or merely reflecting the so-called "liberal bias" of academia. But this is neither a partisan issue nor a liberal issue. It is an American issue.
    Informed citizenry is essential to democracy, as the creators of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 recognized when they enshrined in the document the words "Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people" are "necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties." The burden of ensuring our democracy is just lies with the citizens, and I urge my fellow Americans to become informed and help sustain our democracy by, for example, paying attention to history and current politics, committing to get the facts right, and voicing concerns about violations of civil rights and liberties (and other dangers to democracy) to elected officials.
    In our statement we highlight other historical persecutions, events that show how easily the rights of people have been suspended during times of great uncertainty, and reveal how critical "informed citizenship" is to the preservation of American democratic ideals.
    Along with internment, we point to the "witch hunts" of the early Cold War era, when House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigations of communists and their sympathizers destroyed the lives of countless teachers, artists, politicians, writers, and others. The witch hunts associated with Joseph McCarthy were roundly denounced by Republicans and Democrats during the 1954 Army-McCarthy Senate hearings.
    Decades of research, debate, and analysis have brought historians to a consensus that episodes like internment and McCarthyism were misguided and immoral.
    The nuanced political history of both internment and McCarthyism demonstrate that both major parties have stood at times on the right side of history and also at times have violated democratic ideals. Republicans and Democrats joined in the 1954 Army-McCarthy Senate hearings in denouncing the Republican McCarthy, as they did in supporting the 1988 Civil Liberties Act. Ronald Reagan, a hero of the Republican Party, signed the 1988 Act. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the Democrats' most revered figures, signed the order for internment. The very same Earl Warren who became liberals' hero when he led his colleagues as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court in decisions like the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education originally helped orchestrate internment as California's World War II-era Attorney General.
    Other scholars and I now join the Republican and Democratic politicians who denounced such policies in earlier eras, as well as the millions of marchers standing up for the rights of all Americans, and repudiate in the strongest possible terms any future policies that foster a return to the (unconstitutional) intolerance and inhumanity of these past episodes.
    It is deeply disturbing to find ourselves at a historical moment where misguided appeals to hate and fear seem to be regaining traction. Our president boldly disregards factual information, and his spokesperson Kellyanne Conway suggests that "alternative facts" are just as real as actual facts, and in the process dismisses the historical lessons that may be drawn when politicians replace fact with exaggeration — or worse, outright fiction.
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    I take comfort from and add my voice to those who have recently reminded us as a society to relearn the lessons of history and apply its tools of critical thinking to our current moment. I implore my fellow Americans — Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Green Party, and Independents — to become informed citizens, to read history with critical and appreciative minds, and to be prepared to fight any attempts to undermine our democracy.