Why history matters

By Rebekah Seder, Program Manager

History probably isn’t a topic that immediately comes to mind when thinking about philanthropy. But, funders, activists, and others working toward social justice often frame their efforts in terms of addressing the “root causes” that have led to the conditions we seek to remedy today. This summer’s events in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington offered an opportunity to reflect on the long history of the fight for racial equity, from slavery and the Civil War, Reconstruction and segregation, to the civil rights movement and the debates around equity that continue today.

At WRAG’s final Brightest Minds program of the year, Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), discussed this history and its relevance to today’s society. To Mr. Bunch, whose day job is all about helping people understand and feel connected to the past, “history is as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday.”

According to Mr. Bunch, the March on Washington offers two key lessons that continue to inform social change efforts. First, it is a reminder that change does happen, but that it is fragile, it ebbs and flows and is not inevitable. The original March on Washington was a landmark event. But, as Mr. Bunch noted, while Dr. King’s speech was a resounding high point in the civil rights movement, just a few weeks later four young girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. Reconstruction after the Civil War led to Jim Crow laws. And, the Voting Rights Act and other achievements of the 1960s are still grounds of contention today. The March on Washington was just one, very powerful, episode in a struggle that has gone on for centuries.

Secondly, the March on Washington – both the 1963 and the 2013 versions – underscores the importance of collaboration. The original March on Washington and the civil rights movement more broadly brought together civil rights activists with labor, Catholic, Jewish, and other groups. The success of the movement led to expectations of fairness and equality across racial lines, which can be seen in advancements in support of rights for gays, farm workers, Latinos, people with disabilities, and native peoples, to name a few. Anyone who participated in the events in August could see this reflected in the many groups marching in support of economic and social justice for all.

The idea of the enduring relevance of history is especially powerful right here in D.C., a city that holds such a prominent place in African American history and culture. At the same time, the social and economic disparities in this city are a stark reminder of, in Mr. Bunch’s words, “the unfinished business of the March on Washington.” For Mr. Bunch, helping the public understand the rich history of the black experience in America and how it informs today’s society is an important function not just of the NMAAHC, but of philanthropy as well. An understanding of historical forces is necessary to develop effective strategies to bring about positive social change today. Indeed, false notions of history all too often inform decision making at even the highest levels of government. Grantmakers can play a role in engaging the public and ensuring that everyone, especially young people, learn about, and feel a connection to, the past.